In my recent YA poetry collection Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty, I draw connections between modern teenaged girls’ lives and fairy tales, and I’m not talking about the happily-ever-after parts. I’m talking about when a girl wants to venture out into the world but keeps getting shoved back into the ashes. Or when she’s offered a version of reality that looks delicious, only to discover later that it has a deadly bite.
Fairy tales pop up everywhere these days—in books and movies and TV shows. Sometimes I find them in places where I didn’t notice them at first. The other day I was thinking about some of my favorite contemporary young adult novels. At a glance they appear to be entirely (or almost entirely) of the “real” world, but upon closer examination…
Like the story of Red Riding Hood, this raw and honest novel has a wolf who lures his prey with charm. It also has Theo, an aspiring ballerina and one of the most complex, engaging narrators I’ve encountered in a long time. Readers know her former “boyfriend” is a predator well before she does, and I, for one, felt a deep sense of relief and triumph when she finally stopped blaming herself for getting involved with him and realized it, too.
Think of A.S. King’s main character Astrid as a reverse Rapunzel, sending an essential part of herself up into the sky instead of down to the ground. Astrid feels most free when she’s lying on a picnic table beaming love at strangers in passing airplanes. Otherwise her feelings are locked away, her romance with a girl at work a secret she’s afraid to reveal. I love the premise of this novel so much I want to marry it, perhaps in a German castle, accessible via crystal boats pulled by swans.
I adore all of Lynne Rae Perkins’s books, but this book—a Newbery Medal-winner—especially, in part because it has a lovely meandering quality, as if the cast of adolescent characters is caught inside a long, luxurious Sleeping-Beauty-style slumber from which they will one day wake up, but what’s the rush? They might as well take their time enjoying each others’ company and dreaming their way toward adulthood.
Okay, it’s kind of cheating to include magical realism here, especially magical realism billed as a retelling of the Persephone myth, but let me explain! More than anything, the “realism” in this exquisitely told tale of opposites—a sheltered piano prodigy and a street-wise runaway—reminds me of Grimm’s Snow-White and Rose-Red. Maia and Cass are like sisters. They complement each other. Hand in hand, on a road trip down the Pacific Coast, they enter the dark, dazzling forest of life together.
Much has already been written about this modern-day classic of YA literature, but lately I’ve been reconsidering it in terms of H.C. Anderson’s—NOT Disney’s—The Little Mermaid. Both main characters lose their voices, but Melinda, a victim of sexual assault, reclaims hers in the end, while the little mermaid, silenced forever, sadly comes to understand that her voice was too big a price to pay. In a way, for both young women, the message is the same: speak. Speak out. Speak up for yourselves. You are too important to fade away.
Christine Heppermann is a writer, a poet, and a critic. This is her first book for teens. She is a graduate of Hamline University’s Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, where there are many apple orchards, which may or may not be enchanted.