The following is a post by guest blogger, Heather Tomlinson, author of Toads and Diamonds, which was released a week ago today. I was very excited to learn about this new title since Diamonds and Toads is an all too neglected fairy tale. Tomlinson has previously written The Swan Maiden and Aurelie: A Faerie Tale.
Thanks, Heidi, for inviting me to contribute to the SurLaLune blog. My YA novel Toads and Diamonds is coming out in late March, and I’m so excited about this stage of the publication process, when I (finally) get to share it with readers.
It feels like a long time coming. The novel started out in 2004 as a short story in a series of shoe-themed retellings, along with Puss in Boots, Cinderella, and The Iron Shoes. Which is funny, because Tana and Diribani, my two main characters, spend most of their time barefoot… Anyway, after several rejections, I shelved the anthology and went back to writing novels. In early 2008, when my second book, Aurelie: A Faerie Tale, was in production, my editor wasn’t too enthused about the next project I had sent her. She wondered what else I might be working on. I hauled out the binder of stories to see whether one might have novel potential and Toads jumped out, so to speak.
My version of Charles Perrault’s tale about the kind and unkind girls had been sparked by a long-brewing dissatisfaction. I hated the fairy tale convention that older sisters, especially stepsisters, mostly exist as an evil foil to their younger sisters. That didn’t fit at all with my life experience. Yes, sisters could be competitive, but we supported each other, too. And not every conflict was the oldest one’s fault! (Ahem—at least that’s my perspective. My younger sister Bethany might have a different view. She’s perfectly free to write her own book.)
After all, my favorite fairy tale fiction offers the delicious promise of discovering an old friend in new dress. That can take the form of a different character perspective, a fresh source of motivation, or an unusual location for a familiar plot. Among contemporary YA writers I admire, Donna Jo Napoli’s work stands out in this respect. She’s set Beauty and the Beast in ancient Persia (Beast), Cinderella in China (Bound), and a Bearskin variant in Italy (The Wager). The choices aren’t random, of course; there’s always a thread that connects the heart of the story to the chosen settings.
I tried to harness the same spirit of creative restaging when contemplating this retelling. For one thing, I didn’t want the big sister to die at the end. But how could Tana’s ability to speak toads and snakes bring as much positive change as Diribani’s uttering flowers and jewels? For my fictional older sister to survive her encounter with the gift-giving fairy, the setting needed to change as dramatically as the moral I was rewriting.
Initially, I thought about setting the action at Versailles. But much as I love France, especially the 17th century world that Perrault himself inhabited, it didn’t suit my purposes. The Western cultural bias against snakes is just too entrenched. Another alternative was to bring it forward to the present, but I was hoping to retain a “once upon a time” feel. So ix-nay to a contemporary eco-heroine reminding us how crucial predators are to a healthy ecosystem.
Casting about for a new location to inspire my fantasy world, I was fortunate to hit upon India. My reading showed surprising resonances between the lifestyle of the Mughal emperors and the French Sun King. Their courts shared a lack of personal privacy for the absolute monarch, as well as plenty of intrigue, complete with poisonings and backstabbing both literal and figurative. More critical to my story: both aristocracies valued the arts, especially painting, architecture, music, textiles, and jewelry. I even found bits of trivia linking them. It’s believed, for example, that the giant blue gemstone we know as the Hope Diamond was smuggled out of the subcontinent’s Golconda mines by a French trader, destined for his homeland’s Crown Jewel collection. Looted during the French Revolution, it was subsequently re-cut to disguise its dodgy provenance. Fortunately for this writer, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the trader in question, published memoirs about his travels which helped flesh out my setting.
Besides the similarities in the royal lifestyles, also crucial to this retelling were the differences between Western and Eastern philosophy, especially regarding snakes. Many varieties, both poisonous and non-, inhabit the Indian subcontinent. Regional attitudes vary, of course, but in some areas they’re revered as well as feared. The additional liberties I took with geography and religion gave the story room to breathe. While the supernatural gifts stayed the same, the two sisters—like the snakes—were liberated from a strict “good/bad” paradigm. This gave both a chance to explore a wider spectrum of experience than Perrault’s demoiselles, and changed the story’s outcome as well.
Happily, I’ve heard that this same fairy tale has inspired at least one other forthcoming retelling for kids. I can’t wait to see where and when the toad-granting fairy will strike next!
Photo info: images are from the British Library collection online.
Thanks, Heather, for the great post. My copy of the book just arrived a few days ago and I can't wait to read it! And to add to everyone's reading list, another great novel setting a fairy tale in a fictional Asian country is Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, using Maid Maleen as inspiration.