Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

December 13, 2010

We Edit While We Read

More than anything these days, I have been reading children’s books. I’ve been having trouble focusing on reading lately, but my 2-year-old has no mercy for me: for her, there’s still a 20-book-a-day requirement that needs to be met. We’ve both become pickier picture-book consumers lately, though our criteria don’t always match up. She gravitates towards the familiar – animals she knows, scenarios she recognizes – and me, I’m searching for the impossible.

I’m turned off by a lot in picture books. Some books are too saccharine, some are too preachy. Others have art that’s hard to make out, while others are too simple. When all else fails I reach for titles or stories I read as a child, relying on my child-self’s recommendation. But my child-self wasn’t very culturally aware, I guess, because now I’m just appalled by some of what I read.

I have been struggling with Rumpelstiltskin. We read a lot of fairy tales and yes, some versions are better than others, but I can’t make this one work.  Everything about it offends me.  A girl is given away as a gift by her braggart father to a greedy and cruel king.  She’s put to work on pain of death.  Rather than try to escape or solve her situation, she sits down and cries.  Tears attract pity, and she’s helped by a hard-bargaining fairy.  Eventually she marries her abuser and has a child by him.  When her own stupidity comes back to bite her in the ass she, once again, cries her way out of it.  Ultimately she comes up on the winning end of a riddle because her servant solves it for her.

The first thing Maggie asked me when we started reading Rumpelstiltskin was “What’s the girl’s name?”  Typically, she doesn’t have one in either edition we read (Marie-Louise Gay’s then, later, Paul Zelinsky’s.)  She is known by her position: either the “miller’s daughter” or “the Queen”.  I couldn’t stomach a heroine defined by her relationship to the abusive men in her life, so I immediately made one up for her – she is now Rebecca.  Not a page later I was choking on the words again.  The king – depicted in Zelinsky’s version as a handsome young man – is locking her in rooms and threatening her with little, if any, rebuke from the narrator.  I couldn’t take this either.  Every time the king comes up now I find myself adding “-who was a jerk-” to his name.  I quickly flip past her wedding, where she is depicted looking bafflingly happy to be there.

I grudgingly report the pathetic way in which she gives herself up for dead every other page but I had had quite enough by the end of the story.  In my version, Rebecca doesn’t send her servant out to find Rumpelstiltskin’s name, she does it herself.  Because she’s the heroine, right?  She has to do SOMETHING in the book other than look pretty and pathetic.  But in the end I feel I’ve cobbled together a still-sad tale that says some very dubious things about life to my very small daughter.  I cringe when she requests the book.

Luckily, SurLaLune tells me that I am not the only one who finds this a troubling piece.  Modern interpretations abound.  I simply adored Susanna Clarke’s “On Lickerish Hill”, a telling of Tit Tat Tot, from her collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu, but it’s a bit beyond a 2-year-old, especially with the archaic language.  But surely Maggie needs a grounding in the original story before she can appreciate, some day, these liberated versions?  I just hope she doesn’t get any ideas from them.  In the meantime I’m editing, shamefully, to keep hold of my sanity.

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