Rewriting the story – The Princess and the Prick

October 5, 2020

“Why are there no girls in this story?” my daughter asked when we first read The Hobbit together. I had never asked myself that question. I hadn’t even noticed that there were no women in The Hobbit. Once I noticed, however, it became impossible to un-notice. I became aware of how many classic children’s stories feature no or very few girls and women, and where they do feature, the casual sexism is extraordinary.

The early Thomas the Tank Engine books sum it up: Girls and women are ‘carriages’ rather than ‘engines’. They are weak and silly. Grimms’ fairy tales offer sleeping beauties, helpless maidens, and wicked old women. The mother in Treasure Island (the only woman in the story) causes trouble by fainting. The women in Asterix are dim and gullible. In Watership Down, females are reduced to voiceless warren makers and breeding machines. In Little Women, Jo needs to learn to manage her temper and her expectations of life, while little Beth with her self-effacing, servile work ethic is presented as an example to us all.

As a child, I got annoyed with Anne in Famous Five for making yet more cucumber sandwiches instead of exploring that cave. I wondered why Rapunzel didn’t just cut off her hair, make a rope, and get the heck out of that tower? Nobody I knew had any answers. However, the subliminal messages stuck.

The stories we hear and read as a child shape our behaviour and beliefs as adults, and help to perpetuate the deeply engrained sexism in our culture. Prompted by my daughter’s question about The Hobbit, I reread my own childhood favourites the Grimm’s fairy tales from a feminist angle.

Then, one morning, I woke up with the Frog Prince rewritten in my mind:

“I shall play with you, and eat with you, and sleep with you,” said the frog.

“Oh no,” said the princess.

“Oh yes,” said the frog.

And he did.

Somehow, my sleeping brain had distilled my issues with that story to its core: The coercive control of father and frog over the princess, forcing her into a situation she feels deeply uncomfortable with.

I leapt out of bed. By the end of the day, I had retold twelve well-known fairy tales as funny microfiction retellings. It became a game, but how could I develop these stories into a publishable concept?

Just around that time, I attended the first Primadonna Festival, where I put this question to Lisa Milton from HarperCollins at a ‘pitch surgery’. When I showed her my stories, she had the kind of fairy tale reaction every author dreams of. “I love this!” she said, “Let’s make it happen.”

So, with the help of HQ’s wonderful editor Nira Begum, the concept expanded to include retellings not only of fairy tales, but also nursery rhymes, classic children’s books, films, and myths.

The Princess and the Prick won’t stop you from enjoying your favourite childhood stories. Rather, I hope it will make you laugh. And when your child next asks you why there are no women in this or that story, or why Rapunzel doesn’t just fashion her own rope, you will know what to say:

Let’s rewrite that story together, shall we?

The Princess and the Prick is out on 15th October. You can preorder it here.

(This post was first published on the Harper Collins HQ Stories blog here)

The Forgotten Fairy Tales

(This blog post first appeared on the Harper Collins HQ blog on September 28, 2020)

Have you ever heard the fairy tale of the girl who rode on a black bull? Of the sword-wielding maiden who cut unwanted suitors into pieces? The miller’s daughter who could turn thread to gold but was rubbish at housework? The princess who grew up amongst giants and ended up saving her prince?

I thought not.

So how come all these exciting fairy tale girls and women have been forgotten in favour of the hapless, hopeless heroines waiting for princes to rescue them, or fairy godmothers to clothe them?

I blame the Brothers Grimm.

The Brothers Grimm spun a marketing-savvy yarn, saying that that they gathered fairytales by strolling about lush Germanic countryside, faithfully recording the tales the Volk shared with them by the fireside in their derelict (but charming) farmers’ cottages.

In actual fact, the Brothers Grimm were two geeky, middle class blokes who used stories they heard from their friends, stole from already existing collections, and then adjusted their tales to fit the attitudes of their time.

In the 19th century, fierce maidens were not to be encouraged, and nobody wanted to behold a wild woman. Out went the fierce maidens and wild women, in stayed the meek ones.

Then they adapted their collection for children. Out went the sex, but weirdly, the violence stayed in.

At the same time, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, in came mass printing while oral storytelling dwindled. The Grimm stories (alongside Perrault and Andersen) became the stories that were told and retold, and sold as the ‘real deal’ when it came to fairy tales. And this is how thousands of stories about exciting, proactive heroines came to be mostly lost to the world.

For every Cinderella (read: hapless girl) there is a feisty heroine somewhere out there in the truly traditional fairy tale world. Marina Warner, Angela Carter, Isabel Otter, Sharon Blackie, Sophie Anderson, among many others,  have worked to redress the balance. Let’s join them by reviving these tales, retelling them, re-inventing them for the 21st century.

It’s about time women took charge of the narrative.

Walburga Appleseed’s The Princess and the Prick, Fairytales for Feminists, is out October 15th 2020.

You can pre-order it here (Waterstones UK)

or here (Hive UK)

or here (Amazon)

… or at your local bookshop anywhere! 🙂

It’s here, it’s here! Virgin, Mother, Crone

IMG_2367 (1)

Our wonderful anthology has arrived!

With Flash Fiction by Joy Manné, Laurie Theurer, and Walburga Appleseed, and a foreword by Mary-Jane Holmes

Here’s a taster to get you flashing.

From Virgin, Mother, Crone:

“The first thing he flashed was his smile. His teeth were white and even. His lips curled upwards. His moustache was golden. And when he turned his head away the shine on his long curved nose flashed in the sunlight.
On the second day he flashed his smile again and his nose and he shook his jacket sleeve upwards and flashed his gold Rolex wristwatch. ‘Look at the time,’ he said. ‘It’s exactly tea time, and you are English. Let me invite you to tea at the coffee shop here. They do excellent scones with cream and jam.’
On the third day he flashed his smile, and his long curved nose, and his Rolex, and it was lunch-time and the next thing he flashed was an invitation to a restaurant, where we could eat outside and my dog would be happy.”
– extract from “He Flashed At Me” by Joy Manne, VIRGIN, MOTHER, CRONE

Vestal Review’s Pick of the year

Since 2017, I’m an associate editor for Vestal Review Flash fiction magazine. Recently, all of us editors picked a story for each year of Vestal’s existence, and explained what makes that story so powerful, and why we’re so touched by it. Below are my contributions, about fabulous flashes by Robert Olen Butler and Joseph Faria.

You can find the stories – and my thoughts about them here and here

For all the picks over 18 years, check out this page: