Poor Cinderella. Poor, sweet Cinderella. Or maybe it's a little more complicated than that. Tracy Barrett's new novel for teens, The Stepsister's Tale, offers a necessary update to the classic rags-to-riches story.
No one is a villain (or a sidekick or a mentor) in her or his own story, and in my recent work I’ve enjoyed exploring well-known stories from the point of view of their secondary characters. King of Ithaka tells part of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of Telemachos (Odysseus’ teenage son), and Dark of the Moon is the tale of the minotaur as told by the minotaur’s sister, Ariadne, and his killer, Theseus. In The Stepsister’s Tale, we see the character of Cinderella through the eyes of her hardworking stepsister, Jane Montjoy.
I’ve long been interested in the question of how our point of view colors our perception of events. When my children were little and an argument broke out between them, I discovered that almost always the facts weren’t under dispute: they agreed that he pushed her, for example. But what differed was the motivation: “He was trying to knock me down” vs. “It was an accident.” Each was (usually) convinced that her or his interpretation of the motives was accurate.
But we take Cinderella’s word that she’s persecuted. If we take the bare facts—she isn’t accustomed to working hard and all of a sudden she has to—could there be some reason that her stepsisters were unkind to her? Or is it even possible that they weren’t unkind, and that she misinterpreted what was going on?
Say you know a teenage girl whose widowed father marries a woman with two daughters. The girl and her father move in with the stepfamily. If the girl told you that she had to do all the work and that her stepmother was mean to her and her stepsisters were ugly and bossy, wouldn’t you tell her that stepfamilies take some adjustment, and wouldn’t you suspect that maybe there’s another side to the story?
This was the spark for The Stepsister’s Tale. Jane, the older of Cinderella’s stepsisters, tells of living in grinding poverty with a mother who is in denial that they are no longer the wealthy, high-living family of her girlhood. Jane and her sister do all the work, and when the beautiful and spoiled Isabella reacts with indignation at the suggestion that she pitch in, conflict erupts.
What makes fairy tales so ripe for retelling is that almost always, we rarely know why characters behave the way they do. The villain is evil for no apparent reason. The heroine (or hero) is virtuous. Sometimes we vaguely hear about “jealousy” or “poverty” to explain why something evil is done, but those factors are never explored in depth.
And fairy tales rarely show character growth: Cinderella starts out good and sweet and beautiful, and at the end she’s good and sweet and beautiful. The stepsisters start out as selfish bullies, and at the end they’re selfish bullies. The author of a retelling is tasked not only with figuring out why these fairy-tale people act the way they do, but also with showing their development over time.
I decided to base my retelling on the version of the story most familiar to my readers: the Disney film, which is in turn loosely based on the tale written by Charles Perrault in the 17th century. My aim is for my readers to compare (either consciously or unconsciously) the details they’re familiar with—the pumpkin coach, the glass slippers, the mice, etc.—to the more realistic elements of my story. For that to happen, I have to show the familiar detail from a different angle. I need to tweak it, but keep it plausible, for the reader to get enjoyment from seeing another explanation for something she or he had always taken for granted.
With the The Stepsister’s Tale, Tracy Barrett marks the publication of her 20th book for young readers and her 10th novel. Her first young-adult novel, Anna of Byzantium, received numerous awards and honors, including being named a Booklist Editors’ Choice selection, a Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Book and an ALA Quick Pick. Her other popular YA historical novels include King of Ithaka and Dark of the Moon. She also writes the popular middle-grade series The Sherlock Files. You can visit her online at www.tracybarrett.com and follow her on Twitter: @writingtracy
Author photo credit Jenny Mandeville, Vanderbilt University.