Bestselling author Lucy Coats drops by the Barrington Stoke blog to talk about the magic of libraries and the joys of spicing up a fairytale for today’s readers – specifically writing her Cinderfella story, Ash Boy (illustrated by Mark Beech). After all, fairytales without a twist is so last century! Take it away, Lucy!
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When I was young, my lifeline was the library. Being an only child of older parents, living in a rural situation with few other children my age, I had to make my own entertainment. Mostly, that was provided by books and the great outdoors. But it was books which fuelled all my play, and my parents couldn’t possibly have kept up with or afforded my voracious appetite for them without the local library.
It didn’t look very prepossessing from the outside, being grey concrete. But the inside was orange and welcoming, and best of all, there were shelves and shelves of books (aka other worlds for me to dive into). I read my way through from one end to the other, making lifelong friends within the pages of the books I borrowed. You will understand, therefore, why, when I can, I like to feature a library in my writing.
When I set out to write Ash Boy, my brief from the fabulous Barrington Stokers was to retell a fairytale. I’ve always had a liking for the Cinderella story, which I’ve retold before in the Scottish version called Mossycoat. But this time I wanted to do something radically different.
Normally, my writing process brings a character with a story attached, but in this case I already had the bare bones of the original story, which had to remain at the least recognisable. It was then that Cinder Ashok walked into my head, geeky, glasses-wearing, and with a passion for comics.
I believe, very strongly, that we still need much more diversity within children’s books. I remember interviewing Malorie Blackman a few years ago and being shocked when she told me that she had found no representation of herself in the books she read as a child. So, I thought, in this version, why couldn’t Cinder be mixed-race? And male? And like libraries more than sport? I’ve met kids like him in the schools I visit, and I wanted those kids to relate to him, to have a hero like themselves, to not dismiss this particular tale as ‘just a story for girls’.
I also didn’t want my Cinderfella to be involved in a soppy romance with the statutory princess. That’s so last century. But there had to BE a princess, because the royal/commoner relationship is central to the story. Buttons (aka the Princess Betony), sneaks off in blue-wigged disguise to the town library to read, because all the books in the palace are dry, dusty and boring, and she originally bonds with Cinder over their shared love of comics. Many people scoff at comics as somehow sub-literature, but I learned French from reading Asterix and Lucky Luke in the original language, and the storytelling arc of those is something every writer can learn from.
Rewriting fairytales can be tricky, when every young reader practically takes in the sanitised ‘real’ stories with their mother’s milk (or, more accurately, through the medium of Disney). The originals are much darker, with one version of Cinderella having an Ugly Sister cut off her toes in her desperation to get the slipper on. I decided to put that bit back in, not gratuitously, but as a hat tip hinting at the older tale. Also, it’s just the kind of thing a blockheaded knight-stepbrother might do.
I believe that fairytales belong to everyone, and that their nature is to change to reflect the times they are in. So Cinder does still get his heart’s desire – but it’s a bit different to what the original Cinderella’s was. I hope you all enjoy my version’s topsy-turvy twists.
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