The Big Idea: Heather Tomlinson

And now, a Big Idea that will warm the hearts of big sisters everywhere — as well as examine the assumptions built into generations worth of fairy tales. For her latest YA novel, Toads and Diamonds, author Heather Tomlinson went back to to fairy tale from her youth and started asking questions about it. The answers she devised for her book took her to India and beyond. Now she’s back to tell the tale.


This novel’s Big Idea began as a cry from the heart: Big Sister is not the enemy!

First, some context. About the time I learned to read, I discovered Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collections. Delicious! I inhaled every flavor from red and blue through pink, olive, yellow, and beyond. But, while deep and abiding, my love for fairy tales has never been unconditional. Not that I disbelieved the supernatural elements; witches and ogres, talking cats, and magic rings seemed quite possible. Ditto plucky youths and hardworking heroines, spooky forests, even glass mountains.

Just don’t get me started on the stepsisters. Was there ever a more vilified character? Always ugly and mean-spirited, her only role was to persecute her kind, beautiful, and younger (always younger) stepsister. From my perspective as the oldest girl in my family, big sisters and stepsisters didn’t deserve their bad reputation. We weren’t so awful! (At least, not all the time.) Why wasn’t there one measly tale where a stepsister saved the day?

Of all the stories that made my youthful blood boil with a sense of injustice, Charles Perrault’s Toads and Diamonds was the worst. It’s a classic setup: a fairy meets two stepsisters at a well. She condemns the older one to ostracism and death with a curse that vipers and toads will fall from her mouth as she speaks. In contrast, the younger girl returns from their encounter spouting jewels and flowers with every word. She’ll enjoy a lifetime of wealth and happiness. And a prince. Of course. The stated moral of the story? Politeness saves. Unstated, but certainly implied: birth order can kill you.

So what if the situation weren’t that simple? Stepfamilies aren’t, in my experience, and neither are sisters. Today, writing fantasy novels for teens, I trust my readers to treat the received wisdom of the ages with a healthy dollop of skepticism. If the old stories were mistaken about the whole “birth order determines happiness” concept, what else might they have gotten wrong?

Maybe toads and snakes. Maybe everything.

The aha! moment unfolded: what if I changed this didactic fairy tale’s premise by assuming that both sisters could learn and grow from their gifts? That question immediately spawned others. What if the meddling fairy hadn’t come to punish or reward the girls, but instead felt compassion for them? How might snakes become as valuable as jewels? What if the “lucky” younger girl faced dangers equal to those confronting the elder? Would there be enough conflict to push the action forward if the two sisters (gasp) loved each other? What kind of setting would support the radical re-envisioning I proposed?

Not medieval or 17th century France, the foundation for my two previous novels’ fantasy worlds. Given prevailing Western attitudes, trying to present snakes as a blessing in this context (no, really, they’re “special” snakes) struck me as contrived and stupid. The solution: India, where snakes play a different cultural role, often inspiring reverence as well as fear. The more I researched details of daily life during the Mughal era (palaces! gardens! fantastic jewels!), the more neatly my story elements fell into place.

The setting and characters were coming into focus; all I needed was a plot. When in doubt, I trust in research to spark imagination, and once again, local history came to my rescue. French merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier had published memoirs of traveling through the region, with a helpful account of daily life in the jewel trade. A monograph on the port town of Surat supplied additional details of conquest and occupation. Against a backdrop of bustling commerce, plagues of pestilence and famine, and ongoing religious tension, artisan guilds fought to preserve their contractual rights. Writing gold!

Charles Perrault might well disapprove of the way his tale’s moral has been twisted into a new shape. But I hope I’ve deliver a more nuanced story, one that will speak to teens while reflecting my own experiences with blended families, unusual gifts, jealousy, and grace.


Toads and Diamonds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Heather Tomlinson’s blog.

23 Comments on “The Big Idea: Heather Tomlinson”

  1. damn, yet another book to add to my list (I have a SERIOUS weakness for re-writes of fairy tales, particularly when they improve upon the original, as this one appears to)

    There’s either a short story or a poem based on the same fairy tale in one of the many anthologies by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling that uses the spouting of jewels as a curse–gems are hard! who wants to vomit those up?

  2. I hope Perrault’s spinning in his sepulchre after what he did to you! My wife is a “big sister” and as her father was always telling me, and it’s true, she has “more love in her heart than any other ten people”. If only her younger siblings would appreciate the fact (pffft…inlaws…)

    Mathematically, in any sufficiently large population or culture, and provided that there is no two-child limit in effect, there are bound to be more younger siblings of an eldest sister, than there are eldest sisters. So from that angle, looks like you’re stuck with being minoritised, as well as resented for getting there first, and stealing all the best milk.

    Not much of a YA reader today myself (SF excepted), but I’ll pass this one on to my little nieces, half of whom are big sisters.

  3. Sounds interesting. I have a soft spot for stories set in India.

    In modern America, the elder stepsister makes a small fortune selling the toads and snakes as exotic pets and milking the snake venom for use by pharmaceutical companies (live Monocle cobras are $175 each from Glades Herp and beta-bungarotoxin is about $100/mg from Sigma).

    The younger stepsister ends up cursed because she sets off everyone’s pollen allergies whenever she opens her mounth.

  4. Sounds cool. Never really bought the older sibling hate myself. Didn’t match my experience. Normally don’t like fairy-tale re-tellings, but I’ll add this to my list. Some Indian fantasy will be a nice break.

  5. While I can’t speak to stepsisters directly, I have given some thought to the related vilification of stepmothers in fairy tales.

    Basically, this is a case where it’s a stereotype for a reason: almost no one I know with a stepmother, myself included, gets (or got) along with them.

    The reasons are varied, and I’m sure there are people who will argue that their stepmother is a wonderful human being in every way- the opinions of stepmothers themselves not being considered for this exercise- but statistically speaking, just in the experience of me and my friends during my 40 trips around the sun, the ratio is probably 10:1 unfavorable relationship.

    That’s gotta rub off on storytellers, fairy tale or otherwise.

    As an interesting aside, related to John Kerr’s observation above about elder sister proportionality in society: why are there so many stepmothers? Is it because a divorced man with children is much more likely to seek and find another mate than a divorced woman with children?

  6. @5: I read somewhere recently that the prevalence of stepmothers is due to a misguided attempt on the part of the Brothers Grimm to preserve the sanctity of motherhood. Wikipedia says that the first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales had a wicked mother in Snow White and in Hansel and Gretel, changed to a stepmother in later editions.

  7. Don’t worry about Perrault, worry about Perrault’s estate. After they manage to get copyright extended to life+350 years, you’re in for a world of hurt…

  8. “Know that diamonds and roses
    are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
    one’s lips as toads and frogs:
    colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.”
    –Neil Gaiman

  9. What a wonderful cover. If the author’s reading it, I’d be curious to hear, if she thinks she can say, if she had any difficulty with getting a recognizably Indian woman on the cover.

  10. hi, Kate– I didn’t have cover approval/veto power, but I was very pleased with the image my publisher came up with.

  11. I have a step-mother,a step-father, numerous half-siblings, plus step-nieces, step-nephews, half-nieces and half-nephews along with many siblings and two regular parents.

    How lucky we all are to love and support each other. How fortunate that our family includes such variety.

    Stop adding to my TBR pile!


  12. @giltay-

    Hm, interesting. I wonder if that was still statistically significant in the US circa 1970- I wouldn’t guess so, but could be mistaken.

  13. Other Keith –
    Before the Brothers Grimm came along and started writing things down, many of the evil stepmothers were evil mothers. It got changed to stepmothers because they thought it would be less scary that way.

  14. Other Keith @ 13 – I suspect the demographics of 1970 have had little impact on the history of folk tales.

    Stepmothers in folklore are the second/third/etc. wives of widowers, not divorcés, when they aren’t a blackwashed rewrite of a story with an evil mother (as already mentioned).

    Just as you get a good brother/evil brother, good sister/evil sister dichotomy — one of the oldest patterns in folk story — you also have a good mother/evil mother split. From what I recall of my fundamentals of Jung, this is because no real mother (or father, sister, brother, spouse) is perfect, especially not from the often self-centred point of view of a child. The good and bad get sorted into twin character forms for storytelling purposes.

  15. As a “big sister” of the full, half, and step persuasion I do enjoy this sentiment and as a lover of rewritten fairy tales I can’t wait to read this.

  16. I second the gorgeous cover vote; and am intrigued by your take on the story. Will have to look for it.

    For another take on the whole stepsister dynamic, check out Bill Steele’s song, Griselda’s Waltz, recently recorded by Dana and Susan Robinson, where we find Cinderella had help, and it wasn’t from no fairy godmother…

  17. but statistically speaking, just in the experience of me and my friends during my 40 trips around the sun

    You do realize those are contradictory phrases.

    “Evil step_____” probably had less to do with any sanitizing of fairy tales than about the grim (har) reality of family life in the beforetime; women died in childbirth, men remarried because that’s what you did and you needed another pair of hands to work the land, more children were more mouths to feed in a world where food is not easy to come by.

  18. Gail Carson Levine had her own spin on “Toads and Diamonds”; she wrote The Fairy’s Mistake, in which the younger sister winds up married to a prince who’s only interested in the perpetual source of money, and the older sister discovers that she can make everyone do whatever she wants them to do (“Submit to my demands, or I unleash a swarm of locusts upon your fields!”). In the end, familial love triumphs when the older sister takes pity upon her younger sister’s plight, and if I recall correctly, big sister saves the day by switching their curses around.

  19. I love retold fairy tales too! I read the sample pages on Amazon and I think I will really like this one. :)

  20. I have been chomping at the bit for my copy to arrive. Hurry up, mail!

    Doesn’t the premise sound wonderful? A real fusion tale for our times. And being of Indian descent, I can’t wait to see what the author did with the culture, folklore, setting, etc.. :)

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