Friday, March 5, 2010

Women in Folklore Month: Robin McKinley

There's been a fun blogging trend the past few weeks among authors in response to Neil Gaiman's open letter to Michael Moorcock on on February 23rd: I’m mostly your fault, Michael Moorcock. The result is many authors blogging about whose fault they are, in other words, who influenced or continues to inform their own writing.

Well, for anyone reading or writing in the fairy tale genre, there are several women who have inspired younger authors. I have several on my list for this month--arguably just about anyone I highlight this month could be on the list actually--but today I am obviously going to discuss Robin McKinley if you read the header.

I've shared the story of discovering Robin McKinley's Beauty, but I will do so again. I had read The Hero and the Crown during a severe bout of the flu one day* and went searching for more books by McKinley at the bookstore. There weren't many at the time, just The Blue Sword, Beauty and Hero as well as the elusive The Door in the Hedge. (McKinley's were some of the first books I ever special ordered in those days before the internet.) I was gobsmacked to discover Beauty on the shelf, a retelling of my favorite fairy tale. I snatched up the lone, rather tattered copy and didn't let it go until I had to pay for it. Then I rushed home and devoured it. Bliss!

I was thrilled to find a novel about a fairy tale. I had left fairy tales alone for several years, thinking I was too old for them as many people do, but Beauty brought me back at the age of 14 and I never looked back. Essentially it is why we are here reading this today, for I had other career goals, but have kept circling back to fairy tales and children's literature all the time. Of course, several other influences have helped, but McKinley headed me in the right direction.

And when I finally owned a copy of The Door in the Hedge with its retellings of Frog Prince and Twelve Dancing Princesses, I was even more inspired. In truth, McKinley was my introduction to Twelve Dancing Princesses as a fairy tale. Then Deerskin followed a few years later. It was a tough book, but inspiring and a little educational.

Do I sound sufficiently fan girl? I thought I might as well since just about everyone knows who she is and is familiar with her work. Since she is very much still living and writing, I won't say much here. You can learn more about her on her website at Robin McKinley. She also keeps a blog of her own with forays into English living, bell-ringing included.

So whether you are a fan or not, McKinley's influence on the trend of publishing fairy tale retellings is profound. It had been done before, but her skill and success helped to solidify it as a subgenre that stays strong today and has assisted the careers of Shannon Hale, Sarah Beth Durst, Donna Jo Napoli, Heather Tomlinson to name only a few with hopes of not offending. (Extra credit to Terri Windling, too, but she'll get her own day this month.)

*Only two books have made illness completely livable--Jane Eyre and Hero and the Crown--to the point where I was rushing through the physical demands of the illness to quickly return to my book. I was sick, sick, sick when reading both of these for the first time, but I was only thrilled to have the excuse to be home reading, never mind the putrid and disgusting. Literature can be the best medicine!


  1. I've really enjoyed your blog and your site. As a currently unpublished writer of fairy tales, I have used your site as a jumping off point for a lot of my research. I love to hear how people discovered or re-discovered fairy tale re-tellings.

    For me, I was in my favorite independent bookshop feeling sorry for myself because I hated my current university course on children's books. I was hoping for something, anything, to make life a little more bearable so I wouldn't hate reading. I leaned against the bookshelf a little too hard and Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl fell on my head! And that book got me writing fairy tales (with a little nod of the head to Gail Carson Levine and Ella Enchanted).

  2. I love Robin McKinley. Thanks in large part to SurLaLune (and the helpful admonishments of my friend) I finally read Rose Daughter and Beauty (and also Sunshine, though it isn't really fairy tale based, despite making many references), and absolutely adored them. It's so refreshing to see that I'm not alone in my love of fairy tales, fantasy, and intelligent writing.
    Thanks Heidi!