Updated: Jan 14, 2021
By Karrie Fransman and Jonathon Plackett
Sleeping princes, ferocious female giants, girls in shining armour and breathtaking illustrations. As well as providing a welcome break from the traditional gender roles associated with traditional tales, this collection is just beautifully presented and a must for any fairy tale fan.
Fairy tales are meant to be re-told. So says Katherine Rundell in her wonderful essay, 'Why You Should Read Children's Books (Even Though You are so Old and Wise)'. And I fully agree. Traditional tales, folk tales, fairy tales; whatever they are called, were told orally and passed on from teller to teller. The brothers Grimm discovered that the tellers they visited to collect the traditional German folktales that are now probably the most well known in the western world, would often have their own style and way of telling them. Occasionally, they would find someone, who told the tales the same way, word for word, each time, but that was rare. These tales are not meant to be set in stone and it is often the central elements that are kept, with the details amended slightly or overtly, depending on the teller. They form the basis of our most well-loved fiction and continue to capture the imagination of artists, writers, film makers and creators everywhere.
Personally, I am a huge fairy tale fan. I love fairy tale imagery and magic. I love the poetic language and deceptively simple narratives. I love the allegorical nature and room for interpretation. So, when I first heard about this collection of 'Gender Swapped Fairy Tales', you can imagine how thrilled I was. Whilst gender swaps in fiction are not new, I don't think I have ever read something like this: a straight swap, male characters for female characters and vice versa, with nothing else altered but names. The blurb and the introduction tell us that what we will read in these pages will be more surprising than we imagine, and I was delighted with what I found.
This collection of tales is gloriously illustrated by the talented artist, Karrie Fransman. Fransman and husband Jonathan Plackett have a daughter and wanted to produce a book of tales for her that challenged traditional gender roles, showing her a world where girls can be strong and boys can be vulnerable. This collection of tales does just that. The art is based on the classical images and paintings of fairy tales that Fransman could find during her research and, taking her cue from the features found there, she created the most stunning illustrations with vivid watercolours and inks. The colour palettes she used are purposefully limited, with variation in values providing depth and detail and the colour choices vary from story to story, giving each its own distinct tones. There is so much detail to look at, such as the intricate patterns on the clothes and furniture, which are delightful.
Beyond the details, the illustrations bring the full force of the gender swaps to life. Male characters adopt softer, more vulnerable postures, with exposed necks and clinging clothes, while the female characters, many of whom are now the monstrous creatures or animals - a giant, a wolf, a beast - often loom over them, showing teeth or claws. A king is portrayed cradling his baby, while a brave princess in shining armour leans to awaken Sleeping Handsome with a kiss. I drank in every image and could just imagine how thrilled I would have been seeing them as a young girl.
The stories themselves are taken from the freely available classic 'Fairy Books', published between 1899 and 1913. This means the language is more traditional and there is some vocabulary that may be challenging for children younger than eight-years-old, but this book can be enjoyed for shared reading with an adult. Be warned, though, that, given their age, these tales are not sanitised: Red Riding Hood is eaten and a Wicked Step-Father is made to dance to his death in red-hot shoes! The wonderfully rich language will be great for discussion and I would love to look closely at the features of the stories with older children, using this as a stimulus for writing our own fairy tales. It would also be wonderful to look at gender swapping some of our own favourite stories to see the effect that has on them.
This book definitely challenges the reader to look beyond traditional ideas of feminine and masculine roles and, as such, it is a must for story time and bed time! It would make a beautiful gift for any fairy tale fan.