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

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.

fairy path

HRcollageA side effect of reading (and teaching) fairy tales: things encountered on the forest path seem just a little less ordinary…


top 5 student one-liners, 2011

Now that summer is upon us and the wintertime pre-dawn trudge to class is a distant memory, I am looking back with fondness on the winter teaching term.  Specifically, I am remembering certain moments that made the task of grading student exams less grindingly monotonous than usual.

These moments were (let’s hope) wholly unintentional on the students’ part.  And maybe my bar for comedy was particularly low, thirty-seven hours into the pile.  And please understand that these are flukes–not in any way representative of the keen and insightful things my students typically come up with, even under pressure.  But still.  Here, in suspenseful reverse order, are the winning sentences of the semester:

5. A text captures the elements of what the viewers understands mentally.

4. Being able to choose your own fate is sometimes never an option.

3. Humans are the epiphany of the food chain.

2. The process of bringing a child into the world can be over-baring, yet painful.

1. It is written that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but it is also true that sometimes it can take a thousand words to describe a picture.

reading too much into it

I will admit it, we literary types can be downright irritating.  I’m hoping that once exams are over, reading will seem fun again.

Thanks to Diana Peterfreund for tweeting this (@dpeterfreund)!

picture your plot

Sometime during the first lecture of every term, I draw this diagram on the whiteboard.  Fiction or non-fiction, Macbeth or an IKEA commercial, a narrative can almost always be mapped onto this trajectory of rising action, crisis and wrap-up.

McClelland & Stewart, ISBN 9780771041983

I’m not sure of the origins of the plot arc diagram, but Jack Hodgins does fascinating things with it from a writer’s perspective.  In a chapter encouraging writers to take responsibility for how their readers will encounter the story as well as what they’ll find in it, Hodgins explores a variety of story shapes within the plot arc:

The spiral plot circles around a secret or defining moment, delaying its reveal.  The Thirteenth Tale is a good example of a novel with this plot shape.

In a converging novel, disparate stories come together at a central crisis or event.  Hodgins’ own example is Faulkner’s Light in August, where the convergence occurs upon a burning house.

Sometimes, like in The Blind Assassin, the present-moment story offers an occasion for multiple, more important flashbacks:

Probably the most common shape is the chronological plot’s. Here, multiple strands weave together through key scenes and are tied together, at least partially, by the end:Clara Callan is like this–the letters between two sisters allow for alternating POV but the story moves forward in time–except for our belated discovery that the whole novel is an historical artifact strung together by someone else, as follows:

So okay, it gets messy: you should see what 120 students produce when put into groups and asked to map a novel’s plot.  But mapping plots is a great shortcut to appreciating narrative structure, and appreciating narrative structure makes us better readers and better writers.

what’s your tuition buying?

Vintage, ISBN 9781400031702, 576pgs

My favorite undergraduate classes were the ones that made me feel like a character from The Secret History.  Donna Tartt’s description of the elite philosophy seminar and the capers of its genius-yet-drug-addled students came pretty close to my ideal learning experience (minus the bloodshed and incest, of course).

The other day a student explained to me that, after completing a BA in psychology, she’d re-enrolled in an interdisciplinary arts program because she felt she’d “never learned to think properly.”  When I asked her what she meant, she mentioned asking good questions, engaging in good critique and interpretation, making a good argument.  I told her that those goals made her the poster-child for a liberal arts education.

Truth is, though, I’m not sure she’ll find what she’s looking for.  Her classes are too big.  Her profs (including this one) don’t have time to get to know her.  Her fellow students are too focused on the bottom line: making grade x to complete degree y to land job z.  Seth Godin calls this approach to higher education “buying a brand” and suggests that the trillion-dollar student debt might have been better spent on building up a work history.

The 2011 Maclean’s University Rankings argues that for a Secret History experience, you need to choose a small campus in a small town, where after-class pints with your professors and solid relationships with your classmates are still a reality.  At a big, urban school your best strategy is to frequent profs’ office hours, select less popular electives (like special-topics seminar classes), and join one of the nerdier student clubs (a LARP might be overkill, but Poetry Club and Dragon Boat squad come to mind).

If James Côté‘s claim is true that “good fit” is a better indicator of academic success than any other campus comparator, then my student has made a very good first step in articulating her personal goals (and sharing them with her professor!).  But she’ll need to sniff out every opportunity for meeting them, because it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.

that’s tellin em

In class today (last one! congrats, Monday-morning warriors!) we discussed comics artist Joe Sacco‘s self-scrutiny when it comes to stereotypes that blind western journalists to what’s going on in foreign conflicts.

Truth is, David Malki over at Wondermark teaches the concept better than I ever could (click to enlarge):

Stay tuned for more Wondermark stuff on this blog, because I am in love!

the ups and downs of satire

Whenever I need a good example of satire for my students, I turn to Canadian comic Rick Mercer.  This sketch on the same-sex marriage debate demonstrates all the key features of effective satire:

First, we have an invitation to identify straightforwardly with the speaker’s persona.  We don’t realize, right off the bat (except for our prior experience with Mercer, of course) that this conservative gentleman isn’t meant to be taken at face value.  Briefly, we give him the benefit of the doubt.  This is satire’s ironic persona: there is an important gap between what he means to us superficially, or initially, and what we’ll come to understand him to mean, moments later.

It’s as though the narrator is wearing a mask–of normality, niceness, credibility.  But very shortly into a satirical narrative the mask slips, allowing us an all-at-once glimpse at the face behind it.  That first, crucial slip is designed to shock us–Mercer’s tacked-on phrase, “…of the same race” makes us laugh–because that’s when we first realize that we can’t identify with the narrator after all.

The shock is integral to satire, because it jolts us out of our complacency and prompts us to recognize the issue or attitude being targeted, through humor, in the narrative.  What sets satire apart from other forms of comedy is its critical or corrective function.  Satire doesn’t just spoof something for fun; it exposes some sort of hypocrisy or falsehood in its subject.

In the “traditional values” sketch above, Mercer is demonstrating the hypocrisy of arguing for traditional values in a country that has systematically overturned its “traditions” of inequality to achieve constitutional human rights of which we’re extremely proud.  Satire is a more effective vehicle for this argument than, say, a letter to the editor, because it sneaks around our defenses, seduces us through the pleasures of laughter and of “getting” the joke–i.e., being part of the in-group who laughs at the folly of others.

But although satire can be confrontational and risque, it still has to share a basic code of values with its audience.  Canadian audiences, whether liberal or conservative, agree with 99% of what Mercer stands for.  If they didn’t–if this video were aired in a country lacking women’s rights and so on–the humor would fall flat and the argument would be unintelligible.  Audiences might even take the ironic persona seriously from start to finish.

This is why the Romans cautioned that satire was the most dangerous of the four literary genres (the others were romance, comedy, tragedy).  Its dependence on context makes it vulnerable to misreading and therefore potentially inflammatory.

Satire always risks perpetuating the problem it’s trying to correct.  Apparently, comedian Dave Chappelle left stand-up after a white audience member laughed particularly loud and long at one of his “black pixie” jokes.  Chappelle’s discomfort led him to wonder whether his satire was encouraging racism rather than exposing it.

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