Fairy Tale Follow-Up (More on Young Adult Fiction)

Dear Reader,

Do you know what I forgot in my last post? Mermaids! In that post, I talked about fairy tales and how so many kids, and especially young adult, books these days have main characters who are werewolves, vampires, etc. But I forgot mermaids. Yet today in my BookBub email of cheap Kindle books, I find that mermaids should indeed be included. The blurb on The Syrenka Series by Amber Garr reads:

“This stunning trilogy of sacrifice and love follows spirited 17-year-old mermaid Eviana as she flees an arranged marriage. But the decision to follow her heart has consequences beyond anything she can imagine… 

Now fairy tales are pretty much as old as humanity but this particular blurb highlights what I think bothers me about these young adult books. If you’ll notice, the protagonist is the mermaid. In most classic fairy tales (as far as I observe in my uneducated opinion), the fanciful creatures are not the humans or the heroes and heroines; they are the bad guys. But these days not only do the witches and vampires take center stage, they are often the main characters; the ones we are to sympathize with and relate to. What does this mean? What does it mean that so many young adults are fascinated by these books? Well, the obvious answer to me is that they are longing for something more and/or different than what they are, for escape from the world they know. This may not seem huge development in the history of teenagers, but I feel that there is something different in tenor about it all. It’s all very subjective, I know.

Another thing I forgot is that it is always wise to finish reading a book before one begins discussing it. This whole topic arose because I was reading Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner. When I wrote that previous post, I had not finished the book. Now I have (and I am also pleased to report that it was a bit shorter than I had thought; one drawback of reading things on the Kindle is that it is hard to know where one is; it turns out that a good chunk of the end of the book is notes and the reading bit ended sooner than I expected). And what I found near the end is that Warner at least begins to answer my questions. She talks about how fairy tales have been reinterpreted and rewritten. A key milestone in this history seems to be there reworking by the feminists in the 1970s. Warner says that:

“The contrary spirit of feminist fairy tale has also enlivened the growth of Young Adult fiction, with unflinching fantasists exploring the lives of girls — and some boys — through revisiting ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Snow White’, and other classics. The furious feminist protests of the Seventies have become axioms of children’s publishing and film producers’ brainstorming sessions.” (Kindle loc. 2075)

Now I can just hear those super conservative Christian parents saying, “Aha! Modern fairy stories are influenced by feminist thought. I knew they were all evil and here is more proof!” And I will admit that this should at least make one pause and think. It is always good to do so when selecting books for one’s children anyway. But I am also not sure that this means we need to reject all such stories outright.

My own inclination is that there is a very real, even God-given desire at the root of this kind of literature. Warner also alludes to this when she says that fairy tales, which she says elsewhere are about escape, are a means that “rational dreamers” use to think about, among other things, “ways of avoiding hell” (Kindle loc. 2264). Isn’t this astounding? Fairy tales are about avoiding hell?? I am not completely sure I know how Warner means this. She does say that such stories allow us to come to terms with real world evils in a context divorced from reality. So I suppose it is not too big a leap to surmise that as we try to deal with the evils of our world that we are also trying to wrestle with ultimate evil.

Another book I reviewed recently, Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner, helps me out here. Horner is a Christian and his thesis is that everything we humans should know about God we suppress but that this suppressed knowledge comes back out in other ways. In other words, we can’t really suppress it. In the case of the young adult novels I am discussing, this would mean that our knowledge that we are meant for something more comes out as stories about teens who are really werewolves or mermaids or half-vampires. It is the only human longing: “there must be something more than this.” And indeed there is.

As I’ve said, I don’t think it is inherently wrong to read books like this. Fantasy itself can be used to convey truths in the hands of the right writers (think Lewis and Tolkien). And even in the works of non-Christians, there can be an awful lot of truth that comes out, at least about the human condition if not about the Divine. I do feel overwhelmed though when I go to my local library to pick out books for my older kids. There is just so much out there and I don’t have time to read it all. There are more of them than me and they read faster. So I do do a lot of judging a book by its cover and praying for the best.

What about you? How do you pick books for teens? Any good recommendations?

Nebby

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Good posts and a lot of food for thought. 🙂 I’m wading through this with my almost teen daughter as we BOTH enjoy fantasy. Some good series we’ve enjoyed have been The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, and (with slight reservations) The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper. The latter isn’t a Christian author and so there are definitely some themes/things in them that are a bit dark…I found it so powerful to me in that it reminded me that we are in a spiritual battle. It is seeped in Arthurian legends etc which I enjoy, but again…I’m taking it slowly with my daughter and we discuss as she reads them. 🙂

    Reply

  2. […] done two posts on Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (see here and here), but I wanted to give you a more proper review of it. Warner’s book is not a tome, but, as I […]

    Reply

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