Straw into Gold

Things have been… interesting. Don’t get me wrong: the Changeling is brilliant fun, my family is great, and I always have good stuff to write, here and elsewhere.

But some things can be discouraging even while everything is going well. (Hint: I’m job-hunting with a humanities PhD. Easy? No.)

So I’ve been doing more than my fair share of whining about stuff not being brilliant, really, and looking for fun encouragement on the side. Then the wonderful Lizza Aiken wrote on Twitter about Straw into Gold, a story collection by Hilary McKay (whom you may remember from… everything… on this blog, I’ll leave it to you to search and find), and being in an emotional state I almost wept over how much I love those stories. Then my mother and I in another conversation happened across the same collection. And I recommended it to a friend. And… then– well, I realized I should share it here:

Straw into Gold.jpg

OK, I hear you. I hear you loud and clear: “Why do we need more fairy tale retellings?”

Granted, I disagree with the basis of your question. Asking such a question implies that we have enough fairy tales and I think that’s like saying we have enough ingredients or yarn or notebooks or, I mean– anything you use to make other stuff. Fairy tales are soul material. You need fairy tales to make souls. Cute funny ones for littles, like Gail Carson Levine’s; dark adult ones, like Theodora Goss’s Snow White Learns Witchcraft. I don’t care who does it, to be honest: retelling fairy tales is a godlike act of creation, breathing soul into clay.

What? No. I don’t think I’m being heretical or extreme, why do you ask?

But maybe we can reframe your question a bit: “What does this collection of fairy tale retellings do that others don’t do?”

Well, that’s an interesting question and the answer is complicated and comes down to literary quality and variety.

Oh, don’t jump down my throat: I’m not saying “literary quality” as in “Hilary McKay writes better than others” (though she sure as hell writes better than I do!), but “Hilary McKay has a literary quality to her work which is higher-toned than some and earthier and more humorous than others.”

Let’s talk specifics:

Patricia C. Wrede and Gail Carson Levine jump to mind as retellers of fairy tales for children in twisted and funny and often feminist fashion. I adore both of them! Highly, highly recommended.

Both take the stories in fairly straightforward fashion and, working within the genre, twist this, push that, and come out with something funny, thought-provoking, and just great for, in particular, growing young women who maybe don’t need another story about beauty and docility winning the prince. Wonderful stories!

Hilary McKay challenges even that.

She skips a generation, maybe: take her story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Now, that’s a favourite story of mine in the original! You will pry K. Y. Craft’s edition from my cold, dead hands. (Hey, Mum, if you’re reading this– that gorgeous edition you have that I haven’t yet successfully stolen from you? Put it in the comments, the illustrations are too good for my readers to miss.)

Do you know who else clearly loves the story? Hilary McKay. She writes of it in “Things Were Different in Those Days” with wistful affection, represented by her attitude to the king. But as I said, she skips a generation– in this case, literally: she jumps forward, and bypasses the issue of that blasted marriage question, always so complicated.

Even her first story, the heart-wrenching rendition of Rapunzel, “The Tower and the Bird,” complicates marriage. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a story about miserable marriages. It’s just… nuanced. Still warm. Still beautiful. But very deeply nuanced.

My favourite? Why are you asking such hard questions? Well, I don’t have a clear favourite, but I’ll tell you a story of my own.

I love the story of Rumpelstiltskin with a passion unspeakable. My favourite is Paul O. Zelinski’s edition. I’ve read it approximately ten million times in my life, bought it at least five times for various reasons, and have read it aloud to the Changeling before she was remotely ready over a hundred, at least.

I wrote my version of Rumpelstiltskin when I was about sixteen. (I reread it recently, and it’s not even that bad! Cute and funny. Not a huge amount of substance.)

So I was REALLY WORRIED about reading Hilary McKay’s version because, well, I’m mildly attached to my own memories of Rumpelstiltskin. Let me put it this way: Hi, Disney! You’ve done most fairy tales out there! If you choose to do Rumpelstiltskin, though? I’ll need you to call me.


Dear Lord, is the Hilary McKay version, “Straw into Gold,” exquisite! I savoured every word. Every note. It feels as much like a song as like a story.

My one issue is that this collection reads quickly. That’s not a problem with the writing, or with the length, or with anything, really– just that it’s eminently readable and over too fast. I suggest it as bedtime reading. Whether you have a kid the right age and can read a story a night, or whether you like it for yourself and read a story a night. Just don’t gobble it up, as I did. Read it, perhaps, while travelling, to ease the pain of airports and hotels. Or if you’ve had a long day and are feeling stressed by painful, minor issues (cough), read a story instead of crying. Well, no guarantee you won’t cry anyway, but it will be more cathartic.

This isn’t just a collection of stories. It’s a song-cycle. So enjoy it as such, slowly, one here and one there, and revisit them as necessary.

As I said above: fairy tales are soul material. This collection grew my soul in a fashion I didn’t even know was possible, and I can’t wait to share it with my Changeling.

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