From Sparkles to Shadows
~ by Jocelyn Koehler
When I was very young, I got hooked on fairy tales. I had several books but a few stood out. First was the two-volume Treasury of the World's Greatest Fairy Tales. Sadly, my original set was lost somehow. I scoured Ebay till I found another set, and it was like finding an old friend again. (but if you ever come across a copy in which every page showing a ballgown is rated Good, Excellent, or Multiple Starred, let me know, okay? That's mine.) I also loved the Blue Book of Fairy Tales, which was a Little Golden Book, held utterly enchanting stories whose appeal far outweighed the book's tiny size.
But for the most part, my idea of what a fairy tale was was shaped by Walt Disney. My grandparents lived close to Disneyland, so my trips to California always, always, always included a day in the Magic Kingdom. I could sing along with Cinderella, Snow White, and Aurora...and all their animal friends. Disney's version of those tales became the ideal version. I had the books of all the Disney tales. I had the VHS tapes. I had––oh yes, it's true––the Cinderella reel for my Viewmaster (you younglings, hit the link to see what I'm talking about).
Through my Viewmaster, I would click ever. so. slowly on the sequence showing Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo, where Cinderella's ragged dress was transformed in a shower of sparkles into that silvery ballgown...and her feet were suddenly wearing perfectly clear glass slippers. It was pure magic.
It's no wonder that my family was happy to endorse that idea of what a fairy tale was. "Disneyfied" stories were safe: the villains never escaped, the girl was always saved, and the lovers always lived happily ever after. These were sunny-side-up stories, and while I have never stopped loving them, I eventually realized Disney's Cinderella was just skating on the surface of something much bigger and far more complex.
As a slightly older child, I started looking beyond Disney. Using those other beloved books as jumping off points, I found some of the original Grimm's tales. Here was a shock. Blood got spilled. Little Red Riding Hood got into the wolf, but never got out. Sleeping Beauty woke up, but only long after her beloved family had died. And here, too, were tales Disney never touched. Tales of daughters running from their own fathers. Stories of people cursed into bird-shape simply for wandering the wrong path in the woods. Though more frightening than anything Walt would permit in his Magic Kingdom, these stories had a sort of magnetism that singing mice could never match.
Trina Schart Hyman in the school library (where they were shelved with a bunch of other picture books for the benefit -- I think -- of the art classes in school). Hyman was a dominating force in children's illustration over the last part of the 20th century. If you grew up reading Spider or Cricket, you probably saw her art and never realized it. But she seemed to have a real affinity for fairy tales, as I did, and so I devoured all the books she illustrated.
Her pictures were a revelation for me. While Disney colored the world in flat fields of color devoid of shading or nuance (necessitated by the need to paint thousands of cels for the animation, of course), Hyman's illustrations were filled with sketchy lines, pools of graduated color, shadows in the corners, and hidden details for a reader to fall into. The books she illustrated had words, sure, but it was the pictures that made the story unique.
Hyman played with convention and ignored the Disney rulebook. Her witches weren't ugly old hags––they could be beautiful blondes with flowing locks. Her princesses could remain princesses without ever appearing in a fancy gown. People of color shared the page with the more "conventional" European types (something Disney barely touched on until Aladdin and not explicitly until The Frog Princess). And most seductively, a minor character would often break the fourth wall, gazing directly at the viewer, with an invitation in their eyes to join this watercolored, shifting world where anything was possible.
It wasn't just Trina who made me realize that fairy tales weren't merely for kids. Authors like Tanith Lee, Susan Cooper, Jane Yolen, Angela Carter, and Charles DeLint all brought folklore right into the heart of their stories, even when the books were "contemporary" fiction. I had already devoured dozens of books by these writers before I heard the term "urban fantasy." These books were definitely not for kids. The plots were dark, the characters were flawed. They had to make tough choices and lots of compromises just to stay alive. These shadowy worlds never guaranteed a happy ending for the heroes, but I could never stop turning the pages.
So fairy tales are alive and well in adult fiction. And it's not confined to the printed world. The recent glut of fairy tale movies and TV shows marketed to adults has proven that we haven't lost our need for this kind of storytelling, even if we've outgrown our Mickey Mouse ears. Hey, I still sing along to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo. It's fun! But now I know that a simple "happily ever after" isn't the whole story.
Jocelyn Koehler grew up in the wilds of Wisconsin, but now lives in a tiny house in Philadelphia that is filled with books, tea things, and places to read, sleep, and write. She has worked as a librarian, bookseller, editor, archivist, cubicle drone, popcorn popper, and music store clerk. Her books are available through Amazon or through her publisher, Hammer & Birch.
Make sure to keep an eye on Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing, because Ashley is going to have an interview with Jocelyn as well as a giveaway of 5 copies of Ashes, Ashes, Jocelyn's book!
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