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.
Visit Heather Tomlinson’s blog.