OTI Online
Winter 1999

BOOKS Reviewed
by Mary Lou Greenberg

New Twists to Old Tales

With the approach of the holidays, even the most secular are challenged by the custom of gift-giving. And if children -- especially girls -- are on your list, there's the additional work of finding items that promote positive models of girls and women as strong, thoughtful, bold, and adventurous people. A number of studies in recent years have shown that as girls approach adolescence, society's pressures to "fit in" and mold mind and body to the traditional image of femininity often take a disastrous toll on their self-esteem. But a quick stroll in any good bookstore today presents numerous possibilities for building up a girl's self-image from an early age.

There are many stories set in the present, from picture books for pre-schoolers through pre-adolescent adventure stories, that feature girls as heros. And there are also some clever and compelling reworkings of traditional folk and fairy tales that banish forever the old images of females as helpless, passive, and just waiting for that handsome prince to turn up. Since the holidays are times for tradition, why not turn tradition on its head with these new-style fairy tales, in which princesses slay demons and rescue princes, princes learn to do useful work and appreciate brainy, outspoken females, and some princesses decide they don't need princes at all!

These are tales that could create nightmares for promise-keeper patriarchs and other believers in such traditional "virtues" as female obedience and male domination. But for the rest of us, they're a delight! There are too many of them to cover here, and I advise you to browse in the children's department, as well as in the women's studies/literature sections of your local bookstores. But here are a few some young friends of mine have been particularly taken with.

A Weave of Words: An Armenian Tale Retold

by Robert D. San Souci; illustrated by Raul Colon
(Orchard Books, $16.95)

A story of male-female equality that features a prince who must learn to read, write, and "earn a living by his own hands" before Anait, a clever and beautiful weaver's daughter, will marry him. After they are married, he teaches her to ride and fight with a sword. The new skills of each come in handy when the prince is captured by a three-headed monster (a dev, in Armenian mythology) but is able to send a woven message (the "weave of words" of the title) to Anait, and she decides to lead an army to rescue him. The illustration of Anait in battle-gear on a charging horse facing down the hideous dev is almost reason enough to buy the book! Suggested for ages 5-9.

The Paper Bag Princess

by Robert Munsch; illustrated by Michael Martchenko
(Annick Press Ltd., $5.95 paper)

Written in 1980, this princess story is a classic by now, but not to be overlooked. It is is the tale of the "beautiful princess Elizabeth," who is left with only a paper bag to wear after a dragon burns her castle and her clothes, and kidnaps her intended, Prince Ronald. She decides to chase the dragon and get Ronald back. But after she finds and outwits the dragon and rescues the prince, Ronald shows his gratitude by telling her she is "a mess" and ordering her to come back "when you are dressed like a real princess." Elizabeth decides she doesn't need him after all and goes dancing off into the sunset by herself. Suggested for ages 4-7.

The Frog Prince Continued

by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Steve Johnson
(Viking, $14.95)

Along with featuring passive princesses, old-style fairy tales also give frogs a bum rap. For a different twist that will please animal-rights advocates, this story is about the now-bored-out-of-his-mind prince who used to be a frog until a princess kissed him (remember that one?). He complains that he and the princess aren't "living happily ever after" as they're supposed to, and at considerable peril goes wandering through other fairy tales, until he finally figures out the solution: he kisses the willing princess, they both turn into frogs -- and then they live happily ever after! A provocative way to look at "happiness" -- and a real hoot for both adults and children (ages 5 and up), especially those steeped in Western European fairy tale traditions.

Frog Girl

by Paul Owen Lewis
(Beyond Words, $14.95)

Frogs are center stage here, too, along with a young Native American girl whose bravery saves her people. When the frogs are stolen from a lake, she is summoned to the underwater world of the Frog People and instructed by a mysterious "grandmother" to help find her missing "children." As a volcano begins to erupt and the forest catches fire, the girl finds and returns the frogs to the lake and, by so doing, restores balance to the world and saves her village. Vibrant full-page illustrations (also by Lewis) reflect Northwest Coast Native art and myth, which is explained in a detailed author's note. Told in few words, the story will interest children as young as 4, and older ones will appreciate the more subtle, mythic elements, such as the interrelationship of all living creatures.

One of the illustrations from A Weave of Words: Anait leads an army to rescue the prince.

Tatterhood and Other Tales

edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps, illustrated by Pamela Baldwin Ford
(The Feminist Press, $9.95 paper)

A collection of 25 stories about magic and adventure, all of which have active and courageous girls or women who deal with extraordinary events in the leading roles. Pleasingly multi-cultural (the tales come from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, as well as Europe), most are told (or re-told) in an engaging, witty manner and should entertain children of school-age years through adult. While most old-style fairy tales cast older women as fearsome witches or evil hags, there are several stories here which feature cheerful, clever and fearless women in their later years. In a tale from England, a mother-in-law likes to play cards, dance and sing though her son and daughter-in-law "thought she ought to know better at her time of life." She outwits their scheme to frighten her out of her "scandalous" ways, and they never try to interfere with her life again. Collective action is emphasized in an "origins" story from the Republic of the Ivory Coast when a giant, fearsome caterpillar swallows a child. The village men run away in fright, but the women work collectively to kill it - and when the women chop it up and find the child alive and unhurt, hundreds of little caterpillars emerge (thus, the origin of caterpillars as we know them today). While some of the tales have "true love" endings, all have pleasing twists which promote equality and mutual respect between women and men. In a tale from Japan, three generations of physically strong women who live in the mountains teach a conceited wrestler what "strong" really is; when he returns to their home after winning a wrestling contest to wed the daughter in the family, he and the young woman take turns carrying each other up the mountain. An informative introduction and afterward with notes on the tales helps put them in historical context and increases our appreciation of this valuable and pleasurable collection.

Mala: A Women's Folktale

adapted by Gita Wolf; illustrated by Annouchka Galouchko
(Annick Press Ltd., $6.95 paper)

This is another tale in which a young girl saves her people. To track down a demon who stole the rain seed and brought drought to her village, Mala persuades her three spirit godmothers to change her into a boy. She becomes Amal, but the godmothers give Amal a mirror that contains Mala's courage and wisdom. Of course, it is Mala's quick wits and bravery that make it possible for Amal to find the demon and solve the riddles it poses. In the end, Mala as Mala is rewarded for finding the rain seed, and, most important of all, she comes to realize that she doesn't need to be a boy to rise to challenges and overcome them: An important lesson for girls -- and boys -- of all ages. Based on a traditional folktale from India, Mala is advertised for ages 5-7, but older girls (and boys) will enjoy it too, including the wonderfully detailed illustrations, with intricate designs on every page.

For more girl-positive titles, see the newsletter "Brave Girls & Strong Women," a sampling of books from small publishers for children aged 2-17. For a copy, write P.O. Box 15481, Washington, D.C. 20003-0481, or go to their website, http://members.aol.com/brvgirls.

Reviewer Mary Lou Greenberg is managing editor of On The Issues and a long-time activist and writer.

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