I am a voracious, enthusiastic reader of all things young adult and one of the things that interests me the most as a reader, reviewer, and editor is the way that we write about girls, how those stories are framed, and how we engage with them. Warning: this column contains girls. And spoilers. But mostly, girls.
Looking at folklore and old tales and reinterpreting them is nothing new, of course; the Brothers Grimm did just that 200 years ago, and SFF and YA authors have been engaging with this kind of material for a long time.
That said, I do feel like there has been a renewed interest in YA to reimagine fairytales through feminist, subversive, and diverse lenses, with stories focused on girls and their empowerment. I recently read three of these—three novels published this year, three retellings that take beloved stories/tropes and turn them upside down. The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill is a retelling of “The Little Mermaid” with a side of Slavic folklore and their Rusalka via an Irish history of policing women’s bodies. Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore is Swan Lake meets “Snow White and Rose Red” from a Latinx viewpoint. Finally, Damsel by Elana K. Arnold looks at the trope of the damsel in the dragon tower waiting to be rescued by a prince.
These are not easy reads: all three stories put their girls through the wringer—emotionally and physically—and both The Surface Breaks and Damsel have trigger warnings for rape and sexual assault. All three have happy endings, although the nature of those endings varies from the extremely bloody and violent (the two aforementioned) to the beautifully optimistic and romantic ending of Blanca & Roja. All of these endings felt natural to the stories being told and were extremely satisfying to me. But endings are one thing—what are the beginnings?
All of these stories start, as so many stories told to girls do, with lies. With silencing techniques. With societal, family expectations and shoulds: what we should do, behave, think and feel. The things most of us have heard in one form or another throughout our lives:
“I know a woman’s body may always be touched if so desired. I am blessed to attract such attention. Everyone says it, so it must be true.” –Gaia, in The Surface Breaks
“My sister and I had been born fair and dark, her looking like a girl in a fairy tale who would grow up sweet, a princess, and me like one who would grow up into a cruel witch. I had seen the pictures in storybooks. I knew what I was, with my bloodstained hair. Girls like me were marked for the swans. How could they ever take a girl like Blanca?” –Roja, in Blanca & Roja
“Everything was her blame. Too stupid to find her way to her rooms. Too effusive with her emotions. Too inquisitive with the kitchen girl. She was too much and not enough, both in the same instance. Too big and too small; too bright and too dull; too affectionate and not affectionate enough.” –Ama, in Damsel
And thus, they are told over and over again—if not in so many words—how unimportant they are.
Gaia is a mermaid whose father is an abusive king, a man prepared to hand her over to an abusive husband, both only interested in her body and how useful she can be. Once she breaks the surface, she meets a human man that is no better. By the time she makes a choice of her own, she literally sacrifices her voice for the ideal of true love.
Blanca & Roja have been told all their lives they should be rivals—that one should be X, the other should be Y, determined not only by those who came before but mostly decided on their behalf by how they look. One darker, one lighter. They are sisters, they love each other above everything, but is that enough?
The world insists that all of these girls need to know their place. There is a quote from Damsel that perfectly encapsulates that and is equally valid for all the novels:
“Ama was, she saw, both terrifically important and terribly insignificant, in equal measures, at exactly the same time.”
It is a good thing these authors are taking no prisoners:
The Surface Breaks engages both with the original story by Hans Christian Andersen and its Disney retelling by unmasking what is left unsaid in the earlier versions. As such, a controlling father and the norms of the mermaid society are seen for what they are: a patriarchal society that oppresses women who don’t conform. It addresses how falling in love at first sight and expecting the love of a man to save you is a problem in itself. It goes even further by offering a third possible ending for the little mermaid, one that is neither the romantic ending of the movie nor the subdued “good girl” becoming-sea-foam of the original. The Surface Breaks looks at body positivity, rape culture and how human society treats women in general and says: no more.
The two sisters in Blanca & Roja grow up under a curse that has shadowed the lives of their families for generations. Instead of simply accepting the curse, they both are determined to break it, no matter what. Blanca & Roja uses magical realism and gorgeous, poetic writing to address the way we look at women and constantly pit them against each other, the way people look at brown Latinx bodies and create expectations with regards to sexuality and sensuality, the way we apply Good versus Bad labels to girls, and says: enough.
Out of the three novels, Damsel is the one that distressed me the most as I read it: it is brutal in how it shows rape culture and emotional abuse, often with a subtlety that only makes the sense of dread increase. This begins when the prince names the damsel (therefore effectively marking and owing her), and then proceeds to expect her gratitude, and her acquiescence to his every need—because this is the way things are and have always been. In many tales, a story ends happily when a damsel in distress is rescued by her beloved from a dragon. In Damsel, this is only the beginning of Ama’s story: a tale that looks at identity and agency and asks who gets to have both (spoiler: not women); that looks at the beloved trope of the prince saving the damsel and shows how it can be used to weaponize kindness; that questions the problematic “boys will boys” and “it has always been like this” narratives and says: fuck that.
Gaia, Blanca, Roja, and Ama all gain empowerment and agency as their stories progress and what I found the most heartwarming here is that they are not alone either: Gaia finds the Sea Witch (if you ever wanted to see The Little Mermaid’s Ursula become an awesome heroine on her own, read The Surface Breaks) and her downtrodden sisters on her side when she least expects it—and so she finds her voice again. Blanca and Roja have always had each other’s backs, but then they also meet lovely love interests and allies and thus are able to see through the lies, to learn that being complicated is fine, and then to break through a prophecy that has made hell of their family’s life. (Their allies have their own fabulous stories, and if you ever wanted to see an enby character as a main character in their own fairy tale, please read Blanca & Roja.) A former Damsel, a loyal friend, and a wild cat all help Ama in getting to a comfortable place where she is able to say: this is who I am and this is what I want.
As I was writing this essay, a video from The BBC started to circulate online, one where a girl is angry and loud and she says:
Little girls don’t stay little forever. pic.twitter.com/3yThJBbcUs
— BBC (@BBC) June 7, 2018
These novels embody that message really well.
Given the state of the world, I can’t think of anything more timely, more needed right now than this kind of storytelling: picking up a story where a girl is originally voiceless and giving her not only a bloody voice but also power; transforming a story that was originally European-centric and making it about Latinx sisters who simply love each other; taking a beloved trope, examining it for the patriarchal bullshit that it is and giving it the most satisfyingly gruesome ending possible.
Tune in next time for more: girls.
Ana Grilo is a Brazilian who moved to the UK because of the weather. No, seriously. She works with translations in RL and moonlights as a Book Smuggler along with her partner in crime Thea James. When she’s not at The Book Smugglers, or hogging their Twitter feed, she can be found blogging over at Kirkus with Thea or podcasting with Renay at Fangirl Happy Hour.