good art is contagious: students make fairy tales


It’s that time in the semester when I eat, sleep and breathe fairy tales. The students in the two sections of my Fairy Tales & Fantasies class have had some practice, by now, at identifying the common bloodlines from one variant to another and discerning how the different cultural contexts affect the stories. Class discussion is lively and insightful, particularly for the 8:00am start time.

They’ve also been making their own fairy tales. The Fairy Tale Redux assignment, worth 1/3 of their grade for the term, asks them to pick a tale, any tale, and re-mount it in whichever way they think will best illuminate something new about the story and show off their creative skills.

It’s harder than it sounds. There are time limits, adaptation challenges, group work frustrations, technical difficulties–and I insist they write an Artist Statement that justifies their approach on a theoretical and aesthetic level.

Sara Jo is a philosophy major who signed up for my course because she’s interested in knowing more about deep story structures in human psychology and culture. She is a gift to have in class: deeply curious, intellectually courageous, highly adept at thinking and speaking on her feet.

For her FT Redux, Sara Jo focused on Rapunzel. She wrote a free-verse meditation inspired by a specific claim in the Grimm Brothers’ variant: that Rapunzel sings from her window in the tower, and her song is what first attracts the Prince passing by in the forest. And Sara Jo decided to illustrate her poetry with hand-drawn tarot cards that capture the archetypal significance of key motifs in the story. What more can I possibly say about this?? You need to see it for yourself, right here:

as sibyl, she sang

An Author at Authors’ Day


Back in May I had the great honour of pinch-hitting as one of four Guest Authors at the Toronto District School Board’s Authors’ Day, part of the TCTE Annual Short Fiction Contest celebration.

My friend and fellow Toronto Women Writers’ Salon member Lesley Anne Cowan organizes this event. I’ve been so eager to get involved with the TDSB that I made a point of telling Lesley I could be available even at the very last minute, if one of the scheduled authors dropped out. Lo and behold, she called me the day before–yet another positive lesson in Sarah-stick-yer-neck-out!

I was massively impressed by the uniqueness and variety of great story concepts I heard the students share. A surly boy who makes daily visits to a seniors’ home. A woman married to an inmate meeting her husband for the first time after his release. A young hitchhiker, the old woman who gives him a ride, and the disastrous effects of their mutual paranoia. Here at the outset of our writing careers, the students seemed to be saying, all subjects are ours. I found this an incredibly inspiring notion.

My two-hour workshop with ten Grade 12 students was a crazily compressed version of my usual twelve-week courses: a brief go-around to introduce ourselves, reading out a page from each story, giving brief feedback, reflecting on general principles. Take risks, I said. Have courage. But I hardly needed to say it! These were confident writers and generous, articulate readers–theirs were the top 40 contest entries in the GTA, after all. I felt inordinately proud when, after we regrouped in the main room, it turned out that my Isabelle had won first place for her story about child sex trafficking, and my Angela’s time-loop tale was a top-ten runner up.

The winners!

Mermaids: Hans Christian Andersen vs. Disney

Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out in 1990, a few years before most of my students were born. They all watched the DVD as tots, and so Hans Christian Andersen’s original 1836 story (on their required reading list) is a shock and, for many, a disappointment. Spunky Ariel, with her sassy seashell bra and her adorable sidekick Flounder, is leagues away from Andersen’s melancholy mermaid.

Hans C. A.’s tales tend toward the emotionally ambiguous. Think bittersweet. (Remember the Little Match Girl? She freezes to death while hallucinating herself in her deceased grandmother’s arms.) His heroines model servility and sacrifice, trading in their earthly woes for the promise of heavenly reward. mermaid

The unnamed little mermaid in Andersen’s story suffers horrific physical pain at her transformation, “as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate body: she fell into a swoon, and lay like one dead.” Every step on land is torture for her, “as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives.” In the end the prince marries another girl, and the mermaid dies. Luckily (?) her sisters cut off their hair for the sea witch (more sacrifice!) so that she’ll be permitted to join the “daughters of the air” and be granted an immortal soul after 300 years.

The-Little-Mermaid-BannerWhat Disney does with this twisted, soggy handkerchief of a story is restore a lot of the fairy tale tropes Andersen abandoned. The songs are Disney’s own contribution to the fairy-tale genre, but they fit right in with the oral tradition of the folk tale and its hearthside/market/festival tellings. From Disney we get the traditional talking animal helpers, who bring the skills of the trickster to Ariel’s aid. We get the dramatic power struggle in which the little guys, the nobodies, win out over the rich and powerful. We see a clear boundary between good and evil, and the meting out of justice in the end. And of course we get the happy ending! The wedding! The tearful “I love you, Daddy!” from Ariel.

Disney’s Little Mermaid is every bit as sentimental as Andersen’s version. But in an earthier, more human way–much closer to the way of the old stories.

on kissing frogs

Frog King2

Polling my students the other day, I was surprised to learn that only about half of them know the story of the Frog Prince. The golden ball down the well? I prompted. Let me eat from your plate and sleep on your pillow? Nope. The DVD release of the Disney library through the late 1990s and early 2000s ensured they’d all have Snow White and Little Mermaid and Aladdin in their blood, but a lot of the picture-book fairy tales seem to have passed them by.

In my novel Mad Miss Mimic there’s a scene where the main character is sitting happily in the parlour next to her handsome suitor Mr. Thornfax, and her aunt comments that she looks like the princess with her golden ball. “Wouldn’t that make me the loathsome frog?” Mr. Thornfax asks her.

Now I’m worried my YA readers won’t know what the heck my characters are talking about. This is one of my deepest fears: that my English Professorhood disqualifies me from writing anything people will actually enjoy reading.

And yet, I also really want everyone to know the story of the Frog Prince. In fact I think everyone should be familiar with this story and as many other as possible of these deep-roots stories of the western world.

In every edition of their collected tales, the Grimm brothers put the Frog Prince first. Their earliest edition of the story, called “The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich” is particularly groovy, for two reasons:

1) There’s no frog-kissing in it whatsoever. The transformation from amphibian to handsome prince happens like this: The princess is so grossed out at the thought of sleeping with the frog that she picks him up and hurls him against her bedroom wall. When he ricochets back onto her bed he’s gorgeous, and we’re told, “Well, now indeed he did become her dear companion, and she cherished him as she had promised, and in their delight they fell asleep together.” (Isn’t it great how so much bed-centered activity is contained in the gentle word “cherished,” here?)

2) Iron Henry! I mean, what is this guy even doing in this story? He makes an appearance only belatedly, after the happily-ever-after part. Henry was a servant so saddened by his master the prince being turned to a frog that he had three iron bands cast around his heart to stop it from breaking. After the transformation back, the happy couple hears a loud crack from the back of the carriage. “It’s really nothing but the band around my heart [breaking off],” Henry assures them. And because this is a fairy tale, where things happen in threes, they have to pull over twice more for the same reason.

frog king1

girl meets wolf


My students tell me Little Red Riding Hood is their favourite fairy tale. It used to scare them silly, they say. They adored the refrain with its shiver-inducing climax: “The better to eat you with, my dear!” Plus, there’s something untamed about it, they add. Disney hasn’t touched it.

In class we read an early variant of LRRH first, called “The Story of Grandmother.” The wolf puts Grandmother’s blood in a bottle and her flesh on a plate in the larder. When the girl shows up, he invites her to eat and drink, and the only comment in the story on this cannibalistic act is from a cat who saunters by and says, “A slut is she who eats the flesh and drinks the blood of her grandmother.” The wolf directs the girl to take off one article of clothing at a time and throw it into the fire. Naked, she climbs into bed with him. Then we get the refrain about the big ears, eyes, teeth–but she tricks him into letting her go outside to urinate and thus saves her own hide.

Fascinating, isn’t it, how the blood-drinking and the strip tease are transmuted over the centuries (formalized by Charles Perrault in his 1697 anthology) into the main character’s signature red hood/cape. LRRH4

The girl gets younger, more naive, and eventually (in the Grimm brothers‘ collection) needs rescuing by a passing huntsman. The takeaway of the tale changes, too, from Use your wits to Obey your parents.

But no matter how sanitized it has become, the edginess of the story still isn’t lost on us. The metaphor of the path (life path, Path of Righteousness) and the dangers of straying off it are still current. The gender roles (male=predator, female=victim) certainly continue to haunt.

The urge to rewrite the story is strong in my classroom: last semester, at least 30% of students’ “Fairy Tale Redux” assignments tackled variants of Little Red, reinterpreting them into gansta rap songs, watercolour illustrations, stop-motion animation shorts, Instagram accounts, vlog rants, celebrity-scandal magazine stories, self-defence school advertisements, and digital flipbooks.

what makes it a fairy tale?

This week, in the first Fairy Tales & Fantasy class of the term, I read the Grimm brothers’ story “Fitcher’s Bird” (1857) aloud to my students. (Alas, I forgot my Story Hat at home–but I intend to share a tale every week, so I’ll have lots more chances to wear it).

Maurice Sendak’s illustration of Fitcher’s Bird


Do you know “Fitcher’s Bird”? It’s a weird one even for the Grimms. The clever and cunning Third Sister outwits the evil wizard who has dismembered her sisters by dipping herself in honey and rolling in the feather bed. Everyone who sees her assumes she’s a giant bird, and when they ask her what Third Sister is up to, she points to a skull she decorated with jewels and flowers and set up in the window, looking out.

After I read the story in class, I ask for a show of hands. No, no one’s heard it before. Yes, regardless, everyone recognizes it as a fairy tale. But how? What makes it a fairy tale? Together, we begin to list the conventions that mark the genre of the fairy tale:

Magic (the blood won’t wash off the egg; the sisters’ limbs, once put in order, are reanimated). Clear poles of good and evil (wizard=bad, bird-girl=good). A happy ending (well anyhow one in which Justice is unequivocally meted out: wizard is locked inside castle and burnt along with all his wedding guests). The weak outwitting the strong (all that business with the feathers). A repetitive narrative structure, often using the number 3 (sisters; elsewhere pigs, Billy Goats Gruff). A refrain, also repeated (“O Fitcher’s Bird, how com’st thou here?”/”I come from Fitcher’s house quite near.”) A damsel in distress, and a (male) rescuer (Third Sister’s kinsmen come to avenge her). A setting involving travel between cottage and castle (the wizard is forced to carry the sisters home on his back in a basket) and/or the dangerous open road between. The motif of female curiosity and disobedience (the sisters use the one key the wizard forbade them).

We will re-do this list again and again in class over the coming weeks. We’ll add to it (the wild woods, the child seer, the magical/animal helper, the false mother, the trickster hero, the collapse of hierarchy) and we’ll explore how various tale-tellers, authors and filmmakers have used the fairy tale for moral education, psychological insight, political critique and sheer literary delight.

But honestly, all the learning is in the stories themselves. The variants that pre-date Disney by half a millennium. The post-modern remixes. Our own creative reinterpretations. And the lesser-known tales read, with the classroom lights down low, by the professor in the crazy hat.

notes on the moon


My tarot workshops with poet Hoa Nguyen led directly to a scene in which my mc reads the cards for the boy next door, and he draws the moon:


My tarot workshop with Hoa Nuygen led directly to a scene in which my mc reads the cards for the boy next door, and he draws the moon.


playing school

playing school

This is the first story I sent to my new writing group. We are calling it the Bearded Dog, or maybe Dogbeard. The Dogbeards?

The guy who wrote these comments on my story did not, in fact, write “GREAT JOB” and “A+”. That is Photoshop. I wanted to spell out for you how submitting a story to fellow writers, and having those fellow writers comment on it, makes me feel: like a student. Like a good student, in fact. In other words, it makes me feel like a million bucks.

I am aware that the degree of pleasure I get out of playing school makes me a terrible nerd. Not to mention the fact that I want to give our group a name RIGHT AWAY instead of letting whatever we’re going to call it evolve and emerge naturally, like a cooler person would do, or letting it never have a name, like–well that’s the kind of cool I can’t even fathom.

But hey, being a new fake student in this new fake classroom is getting me to put some new stuff on paper. It’ s giving me permission to be a novice (yet again!), to take some risks.

Whatever works, right?

Toronto treasure

Yesterday whilst killing time after dropping the boys off at a workshop downtown, I came face to face with this guy:Image

O, wondrous strange! It’s the Lillian H Smith branch of the public library, home of the Merril SciFi & Fantasy Collection and the city’s Children’s Literary Archive.Image

These friendly beasts and the award-winning building they guard aren’t nearly as old as they look. Somehow the mid-1990s design-build incorporated art deco elements like checkerboard tiles and brass doors without falling into cheap pastiche.

ImageBeautiful natural light and a soaring central atrium give this library a fantastical-yet-comfy feel.  The 4th-floor archives feature multiple research rooms and a gallery space displaying thoughtfully curated exhibits and artifacts, including what was, until recently, the world’s smallest book.

I came away with a new sabbatical goal (as if I need more!): incorporate a class trip to this place into my syllabus–maybe even a hands-on project in the archives. Might be tricky for the Fairy Tales & Fantasy (100 students) or Gothic Horror (80+), but when it comes to teaching I never say never….Image


EnglishmanSince watching BBC’s Parade’s End, I’ve been musing about Christopher Tietjens’ passion for “duty.” It’s already an anachronism in WWI England. Poor Chrissy’s adherence to an expired moral code makes his behavior more arse-like than gentlemanly. So I’m curious what, if anything, “duty” might mean in today’s world.

The word “duty” has a homely sound. I associate it with the dullest aspects of marriage and family (fidelity, washing dishes). Also with administration (filling out forms, pulling one’s weight on committees) and boring supervisory tasks (“yard duty”).

But maybe “duty” can be nobler than that? Consider Francisco Dao’s recent post about the difference between loving what you do and taking pride in your work. Dao makes the old-fashioned sounding claim that “love doesn’t push us to be our best.” Contrary to what we’re always told, it’s not all about feeling good. What’s more crucial than loving our work is holding ourselves to a standard and caring about the quality and impact of what we do.


Dao is a startup/tech/media guru and could hardly be accused of being old-fashioned. Maybe pride in one’s work is today’s equivalent to “service to above and below” (the English gentleman’s code), or even the kind of patriotic duty that once prompted men to enlist by the thousands. Pride in your work requires discipline and perseverance and maybe- *gasp*- even sacrifice.

Education researcher and MacArthur Fellow Angela Duckworth believes that “grit” is the key to student success. Grit, not intelligence or aptitude or motivation. That elusive quality of character for which we barely have a word. Stick-to-it-iveness, volition, grit–the capacity for staying with your commitments and keeping the long view. Is this the virtue we’re scratching around for when we talk about, or don’t talk about, dutifulness?