I recently discovered that I had missed discovering a series dedicated to re-writing faerie tales. It was called, obviously enough, Once Upon a Time. I was shocked and felt like I wasn’t doing my job (self assigned though it may have been) of keeping up on YA/Children’s lit, especially that concerning faerie tales.
Now that I’m about halfway through the series (there are 19 books so far, I can’t tell if they’re done or not as it’s more of a thematic series than a plot series), I’m seriously regretting my decision to read it. Unfortunately, I’m not regretting the decision enough to stop. Why? Because the series has some redeeming factors. I think I’ll talk about them first, because I do have something of an impressive rant to follow.
Once Upon a Time seeks to redefine the context of faerie tales into something that’s more relatable. The magic is still there, the fantastic is still–in the main–kept alive and well in these tales, but they’re put in contexts that modern teens can better understand. One story (“Rumpelstiltskin”) is set in the late 1800’s and the poor farmer’s daughter is recast as the daughter of an Irish immigrant fleeing the potato famine. Another (“The Frog Prince”) is set mid-World War I. There’s even a post-Camelot (and yes, Camelot counts as semi-historical) retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”
However, the re-contextualizations I found myself enjoying most were not the historical ones, but the political ones. Violet Eyes, which takes on “The Princess and the Pea,” sets up the purpose of the ridiculous tests of a “true princess” as a way NOT to offend every neighboring kingdom. In this version, the current monarchy is first generation, choosing a wife for their son means picking the first of their alliances. The tests were an arbitrary way to pick that alliance and to sidestep the ready-to-explode political bomb as well as pick a wife with a good character and an honest spirit. The “Jack and the Beanstalk” novel includes a coup and Robin Hood sewn seamlessly together (AWESOME!!!!!).
If these had been the only elements of this series, I would recommend it left and right. As it stands, I whole-heartedly stand behind my first assessment, which I recently offered to a friend: NEVER read this series. Yes, I am writing a Weeds Review of an entire series as a warning. Because it is of a series with multiple authors, I’m going to have to break my rule about providing the long passage of writing and just hope what I detail gives you a good enough idea of style.
Where Once Upon a Time succeeds, it does fairly well. Certainly well enough for me to support it in the endeavor to re-introduce faerie tales to mainstream literature. However, there are some things it does not do well.
ONE: Some of the novels are based on historical figures. This is lazy. There are plenty of faerie tales left out there. What about the oft-neglected Tam Lin!? Anastasia Romanov is not a faerie tale character, neither is Hua Mulan, though I will give that they have been semi-mythologized. This is insulting, not only to the original countries and cultures from which these real people stem, but also to the readers who are reading faerie tales and then must suddenly divorce fiction from fact. If the reader knows better, this is merely annoying. If they don’t, this is BAD.
TWO: After putting all this work and care into re-contextualizing the faerie tales, some of the stories are just lengthened versions of the tale. The authors got lazy, again. They didn’t feel like finding a historical or political setting. They just went and did. Thppppp on you.
THREE: This is my major complaint. These books perpetuate what I consider to be the one, and only, damaging faerie tale out there: love at first sight. It isn’t real, it doesn’t exist and training teenage girls to expect it out of every day romance is about the worst thing a book–which is supposed to be a wonderful source for escape, yes, but also a source for learning about life–can do.
Now, my little brother points out that just because I haven’t run across love at first sight doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (this is the same little brother who recommended Heart of Darkness, he’s so good for me). Granted. That’s not the only reason I think love at first sight doesn’t–and can’t–exist, but I will admit to it being a decent part of my thinking (maybe 40%). Even so, should I consider that forty percent of my conviction to be on shaky ground because my personal experience isn’t all-encompassing, the alarming frequency (sometimes three couples in one book!) with which love at first sight occurs in these books is still damaging to the target audience. Teens, please forgive me for this, but teens are still at the stage where they are learning what to expect from life by what they are told in movies, literature, magazines, etc. Is this wrong? Yes! Entirely! Doesn’t mean it’s not true. And, if they are told by the books that they read that love at first sight not only happens but happens so often that every hero and heroine across ages, countries, statuses, political situations, and economic levels can expect it to happen at some point in his or her life, the message is still HORRIFICALLY WRONG.
So why am I still reading this series? I don’t know. Part of me recognizes the redeeming factors, even rejoices in them. While love at first sight is most out of control in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” that is also one of the best developed political situations. Some of the characters are good! Some are horrible stereotypes. The romances are chaste, which is another big benefit. I think too many authors try to make teens adults too early. I suppose I continue to read to try to weigh it out. The scales currently hang in balance. They have to tip soon.
Reasons why I chose this book series above all others:
- It’s caused a lot of conflict in me–that’s good, right?
- I worry about this one and DON’T want a friend of mine recommending it to a teen they know.
- I do respect the re-contextualizing that’s being done and think the authors deserve recognition for what they are doing.
- I want to explain all my tweet rants about love at first sight from the past couple weeks.