Review of the Day: Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit, ill. Arthur Rackham
I’ve been thinking about fairy tales a lot recently. Specifically feminist fairy tales. They aren’t a particularly new concept but in recent years there’s been a distinct increase in their numbers. At their best they can provide an innovative, sly commentary on everything that’s wrong with the Disney model. At their worst, they can be preachy, didactic, and not very much fun. The fun is important because that’s pretty much the only reason kids like fairy tales in the first place. What child wants to be spoonfed some moral lesson couched in fairy tale trappings? A bit ironic, I guess, since there was a period back in the day when fairy tales were separated from their semi-sociopathic, very adult, beginnings and given a quick coating of moral teachings. Now we’re doing it again and the results are decidedly mixed. Generally what happens is that you’ll get a collection of tales, and each one will be a familiar fairy tale but with a modern twist. There’s nothing particularly original or kicky about these, and half the standalone feminist fairy tales do the same thing but in picture book form. That’s what’s so interesting about Rebecca Solnit’s Cinderella Liberator. It’s a reinterpretation of Cinderella, but done in such a way that’s fairly original. Want to look at Cinderella through the mores of the 21st century? I suggest pairing yourself up with an artist that’s been dead for 80 years. Why it’s so crazy, it just might work.
We all know the classic story of Cinderella. A girl who worked while her stepsisters flounced. A young woman who grew strong from her chores, meeting people at the marketplace, understanding the logistics of keeping everyone fed. Little wonder that she’d also pine for something as fun as a great ball. Uninvited, she was clearly put out, but a fairy godmother helped her with the details and soon it was ball time. All this, we already knew. What changes is what happens when the prince, a perfectly decent guy, tracks her down afterwards. Instead of marrying him, the two start talking about what they really want. For her, to have a cake shop of her own. For him, a little more freedom and actual work. And when the good fairy tells them they have the power to take their future into their own hands, you can bet they do so and with stellar results.
The author’s name on this one caught my eye. Solnit . . . Solnit . . . why did I know that name? Well, my day job is buying adult materials for my library and you just don’t forget a book with a title like Men Explain Things to Me. She’s apparently written seventeen of the darn things, but Cinderella Liberator is the first children’s title she’s tried. This could always be considered a point of concern. Adult authors can be very touch-and-go when it comes to writing books for kids. It’s baffling to watch these exceedingly clever wordsmiths just muck up picture books left, right, and central. Solnit’s a bit different. It helps that she has a strong framework to work off of, and there are some nice moments. Lines like “She looked like a girl who was evening, and an evening that had become a girl.” Then there are the distinctly feminist touches. Solnit makes all the critters turn into footwomen and coachwomen, which wouldn’t really be a problem except that the accompanying illustrations don’t really back that change up. Other changes are a bit more surprising. In the story Cinderella’s stepmother transforms into “the roaring in the trees on stormy nights” which is one way of getting her out of the way.
And yeah, I won’t lie to you. There’s going to be a child reader out there that gets super upset that Cinderella doesn’t “get” to be a princess. You know kids. Changing the stories they know by heart isn’t always received with, uh, bliss. This begs the question of what age, precisely, you should hand this book to. I’d say that if a kid is ready for a text-heavy book and isn’t a fairy tale / Disney fanatic then feel free to read it to them if they’re anywhere between 5-7. If, however, that kid is utterly bonkers for the princessey aspects of the original, wait until they’re a little older. Say, 9 or 10 or even 11 or 12. An age when they’re a bit more intrigued by reinterpretations and stories that break down problematic texts. There’s a lot here to chew on and discuss with older kids. Great lines and the changes by and large work.
That said, one change Solnit made to the story was just baffling to me. For whatever reason, Solnit could not keep Cinderella parentless. So it is that the fairy godmother tells Cinderella at the end that, “You are the daughter of a great judge, who had to go far away to help others and thought his new wife and her daughters would be kind. You are the daughter of a great sea captain, who lost her ship at sea and will come home one day on another ship.” This just clutters up the story considerably. I mean, it’s nice to have parents and all, but at the same time it’s hard to care about this judge or sea captain, particularly when all you really want to do at this point in the text is find out what Cinderella’s going to do with her life. Additionally, Solnit follows this section up with the fairy godmother, after expounding on how marvelous Cinderella’s real parents are, saying, “nobody is good or valuable because of who their parents are, or bad because their parents are bad.” Really? Because you just made it clear that our heroine has killer cool parental units, whereas her stepsisters got stuck with a lady that ultimately dissolves into loud air due to her rotten nature. Strike this section from the book and you’d have a sleek, slim, handsome story. Which, for the most part, it really is.
A great author once told me the difference between fairies and princesses. Fairies, she pointed out, are free. They zip about on wings. They have magic. They get to have adventures. Princesses, in contrast, wear corsets. They hang out in towers. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they get to swim, but that never really ends very well. Half the time they’re yearning for freedom, but the minute they get it (whether they’ve escaped sleep, the villain, poverty, you name it) they immediately get married and trapped in an all new way. I mean, if you had to choose, you’d go with being a fairy anytime, right? But there’s much that I can understand about the appeal of princesses. Many of the books about them show them getting wildly fancy. The food looks good, and dress-up is fun. And who doesn’t want to be gorgeous once in a while, I ask you? That’s what kids are asking for when they ask for princess books. Maybe they want the romance, but for a lot of them it’s the beauty. Therefore, if you want to do a fairy tale that keeps its heroine from ever becoming a princess, you need to appeal to the fancy and the fun, but not go so overboard that real life pales horribly in comparison. Solnit says that when she was writing her version of Cinderella she came across Rackham’s silhouette illustrations and fell in love. Not only that, he provided the perfect solution to this thorny problem.
It’s interesting to think that Arthur Rackham isn’t remembered for his silhouettes much at all, today. His paintings are always so grandly grotesque and strange that anything else he might have done could fade from memory quite easily. Looking at the art for this book, however, I was just floored by the man’s attention to detail. There’s a shot of Cinderella holding out her ragged dress, holes apparent and even her little sleeves spitting threads at the shoulders. It’s good but look at Cinderella’s feet. Rackham has taken the time to make her little toes splay out a little. The distinct gap between the big toe and the rest of the foot keeps her from looking like she’s wearing ballet slippers or something. It’s a meticulous attention to detail that stands out to this day. Solnit also points out that in selecting this particular art, “Silhouettes meant that the story might not feel so racially determined as the other images by Rackham”, a fact that I noticed as well. There’s a final shot of Cinderella speaking to some local children that felt so modern (the kids’ clothes and hair honestly feel diverse and contemporary) I more than half wondered if the image had been tweaked for a 21st century book. It hadn’t, for the record.
Author Shannon Hale tells a story that perfectly highlights the problems that come with having problems with princesses. There was a well-meaning teacher reading her Princess in Black books to his students. As part of the lesson, he made it very clear to the kids that when Magnolia was in her princess form, it was a bad thing, whereas when she was in her butt-kicking superhero form, that was a good thing. Hale protested this lesson, pointing out that there is nothing inherently wrong with one model or the other. The whole point is that Magnolia is free to CHOOSE whether or not she wants to be a princess or a superhero. Being a princess is absolutely fine if that’s what you choose. It’s having those choices taken away from you that make for big problems. Cinderella in Solnit’s book is given that choice. She’s allowed to say what her dreams are, and then she goes out and attains them. And they’re not huge ridiculous dreams but small, happy, manageable ones. Ultimately, that’s the gift Ms. Solnit is giving kids with this book. Thanks to Rackham’s art, they get the beauty of a princess story, and thanks to Solnit they get a feminist retelling that doesn’t sacrifice fun. When I read the title of this book, I assumed it would be about a Cinderella that freed everyone like some kind of 18th century Katniss Everdeen. Instead, she frees herself. And that’s pretty good too.
On shelves May 7th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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