Friday 19 August 2011

Fairytale Reflections (31) Candy Gourlay

Candy Gourlay was a young journalist writing for the opposition during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.  After the revolution that toppled Marcos, she moved to London with her English husband and, as she says, 'attended to dictators of the nappy-clad variety before trying my hand at children's fiction.'

Her debut novel, 'Tall Story',  published in 2010, is the story of two children.  Andi lives in London, and she has two big wishes.  Mum and Dad simply don't realise how important it is - but Andi is desperate to play on the basketball team of her new school.  She may be small, but she's good and she knows it.  But guess what? They only take boys. 

Andi's other big wish is that her sixteen year old half-brother, Bernardo Hipolito, could come and live with them.  Although she can hardly remember him, she would love to be his little sister - if only the Foreign Office would grant him a visa.  And finally, after years of waiting, this wish comes true.  As Bernardo's plane arrives from the Philippines, Andi hopes he'll turn out to be tall and just as mad as she is about basketball.  And Bernardo turns out to be tall, all right. But he's not just tall ... he's a GIANT.

Candy's story isn't only a tender and touching tale of clashing expectations and cultural differences.  Woven into the narrative are many of the folktales and fairytales of the Philippines. Brought up by his uncle and aunt in the tiny mountain village of San Andres, Bernardo is named after a local folklore hero, the giant Bernardo Carpio, who was big enough to plough fields with his comb and carve mountains with his fingers.  One day, when an earthquake split the land open, Bernardo Carpio jumped into the fissure and braced his arms to prevent the two walls of rock from colliding. The earth swallowed him, but the village was saved.

That was long ago, but in this earthquake-prone area, earth tremors are a continuous hazard, and the village of San Andres gets into the World Records Website as 'the Land of Rock and Roll' with seismographs registering hundreds of tremors a day.

Superstition and fear rule the village in the person of Mad Nena, the village witch and her daughter Gabriela.  It's the sort of place where, though people may be kind, they are also ignorant.  And they are poor: and medicine is expensive.  A case of rabies is treated with charms, and young Bernardo is allowed to grow taller and taller without ever being taken to a doctor: because

... imagine what a big deal it was when people discovered a boy amongst them named Bernardo who was shooting up like a giant bamboo. 

And imagine what they thought when, as the boy grew, the rock and roll dwindled to a full stop.

And then imagine how they would feel if they knew their saviour was about to leave them to their fate.

Tall Story  has been shortlisted for eleven children’s book prizes including the Waterstone’s, the Branford Boase and the Blue Peter prize. It won the Crystal Kite Children’s Book Prize for Europe.  Her next book, 'Shine', will be published in 2012...

Now I'm a big fan of oral storytelling as well as the written down variety.  So here is Candy, a woman of many talents, with some tantalizing glimpses of stories from the land of her birth - and one in particular:

The Legend of the Pineapple

Are there such things as fairy tales in the Philippines where I grew up?

By Sophie Anderson (Wikimedia Commons)

If a fairy tale requires a fairy, then no - we don't have wand-wielding, tutu-wearing creatures in our woods (I would say rain forests, except most of those have been chopped down).

What's in a fairy tale? Magic, certainly. An evil power perhaps - wicked stepsisters, witches, magic foul versus heroine fair. A resolution that involves come-uppance? Happily ever afters?

I thought the best way to reflect on this subject was to do my own re-telling of a Filipino sort of fairy tale ... so here is my video re-telling of The Legend of the Pineapple, an old Filipino story.

I made the video with the help of my young neighbours, Christiane and Jacob (Jacob very kindly agreed to be the voice of a little girl as long as I used his drawing of a jet plane - watch out for it!):

The Legend of the Pineapple from Candy Gourlay on Vimeo.

I grew up listening to stories like these told by my parents usually during the frequent evening power cuts that plagued my childhood in Manila. We would light candles and katol (an incense like mosquito repellent) and sit around the dining table telling stories until the power cuts were over.

The stories were always about everyday things - the turtle, that mountain we always drove past, that plant with leaves that folded when touched ... but unlike the happily ever afters of Western fairy tales, the endings always had a sadness to them.

A man turned arrogant and overbearing by his rapid success, turns into the shamefully slow turtle. (The Legend of the Turtle)

Maria Makiling (Photo: Life Expressions blog)
A young woman, abandoned by her lover, falls into an eternal sleep - and will forevermore be a mountain. (The Legend of Maria Makiling)

Makahiya plant (Sensitive Plant)
A painfully shy child trying to overcome her shyness ventures out only to be crushed by cruel strangers. She turns into the makahiya, a grass-like creeper whose leaves shrink away and fold when touched. (The Legend of the Makahiya)

Yes, there is magic but there is a helplessness in the face of greater, unstoppable powers in these stories. And inevitably it's not good magic, but bad.

The Philippines is a country always on alert for disaster - year after year, typhoons sweep in without fail, floods ruin crops, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes ... living with constant catastrophe has invested the culture with a diffidence - bahala na ("Let it be" or "God wills it") is a common expression. Catholicism (we are the only Catholic country in Asia) exacerbates this fatalism.

Here's a video reflection I made about the 2009 deluge in the Philippines: (you don't have to watch the whole thing)

(With thanks to Geraldine McCaughrean who wrote Not the End of the World)

The odd thing is when I was a child, I don't think I regarded these magical stories as fairy tales. With disaster so much a part of the fabric of life, they just seemed too real to be fairy stories.

I found my old school primer the other day from when I was seven years old.

The Cathedral Reader series, with Ann, David, little Timmy and their fluffy pets who lived on clean roads with white picket fences
Now I didn't question the provenance of these stories or the other stories I read in books - the ones about Cinderellas, witches, evil stepmothers and the like.

There wasn't a lot of publishing (and very few books for children) in the Philippines at the time. Most books were imported from America and Britain.

Six year old me. 

The world of reading, for me, was about somewhere else. In those books, nowhere looked like home, and nobody looked like me  - not even in one of my favourite picture books, The Five Chinese Brothers!

Most of my reading came from bound collections like these, courtesy of door-to-door salesmen selling encyclopedias and other bound collections that we paid for by installment. I've kept the old collection that I read as a child and dip into them to this day. 
It was all fantasy. Everything I read was a fairy tale.

It was only when I came to live here in Europe that I discovered there really were castles and hundred acre woods and foxes and kings and twisty-turny cobbled alleys and Black Forests. It takes a big leap for me to think that those fairy tales I read as a child were based on real places and possibly real people.

Huh. So those storytellers of long ago were writing about themselves.

And perhaps their readers were thinking: these stories are too close to the bone to be fairy tales.

Friday 12 August 2011

Fairytale Reflections (30) Fiona Dunbar

So you're looking for an author who writes adventure stories – and I mean adventures – with brilliant main characters who more often than not just happen to be female?   You are looking for Fiona Dunbar. There is no earthly reason (other than adult-generated prejudice) why boys as well as girls shouldn’t enjoy her books.  Her writing fizzes with energy and ideas and fun: she blithely ignores boundaries between genres, and I’m particularly addicted to her ‘Silk Sisters’ trilogy, beginning with ‘Pink Chameleon’, set a decade or two into the future, a wildly funny yet thought-provoking mixture of science fiction and – believe it or not – fashion.  (Just how far can genome research and nano-technology take us? What if you really ARE what you wear?)

Or there’s her Lulu Baker books which combine fairytales, skulduggery and cookery… or ‘Toonhead’, in which ten year old Pablo (so named by fond arty parents who hope for a budding Picasso) discovers he can predict the future through the cartoons he draws – a skill which gets him kidnapped…or her most recent title, ‘Divine Freaks’, featuring the irrepressible Kitty Slade, whose talent for seeing ghosts (inherited from her mother) soon leads her into no end of trouble involving a dodgy landlord who wants to evict her family, a scalpel-wielding ghost in the school biology lab, a back-street taxidermist, shrunken heads, and a fraudulent antiques business. 

One of the things I like most about Fiona’s books is that her heroines – or the occasional hero – don’t exist in a vacuum.  Family is important. The Silk Sisters are desperate to find their missing parents, and the bond between responsible elder sister Rory and her strong-willed little sister Elsie is both funny and touching.  In ‘Divine Freaks’, Kitty can rely on her brother and sister for backup, while her Greek grandmother Maro is a reassuring if eccentric presence.  This helps steady the reader’s nerves through some of the more exciting passages… as here, when Kitty and her brother and sister secretly enter the taxidermist’s house:

Those knives for slicing open a man’s skull, those needles for sewing up the lips.  Just what kind of skins had we seen?  And now I thought about the large pots in the kitchen, large enough to contain a whole head…

I steadied myself on the stack of tea chests.  “What is Eaton involved with?”

“Does this mean he’s killing  people?” asked Flossie…

Sam’s white face was now glistening with sweat.  “Wait… not so fast!  There has to be some rational explanation for all this.”

There was a click. Followed by a humming sound.  We all jumped.  Then I realised it was coming from a small fridge in the corner that none of us had noticed before.

We all stared at it.  “OK,” I said.  “Who’s brave enough to look in there?”

Oh, and before I forget, the ghosts are real ghosts, the magic is real magic. Fantasy meets adventure meets horror meets science fiction.  What’s not to like?  If you have a ten-to-fourteen year old in your life, get them one of these books immediately!  Meanwhile, here is Fiona to talk about one of the old favourites -


Hands up who thinks Cinderella is a rather nauseating goody-two-shoes. Just in case there’s any uncertainty, I’m talking about the Cinderella who not only puts up with systematic abuse from her stepfamily without ever standing up for herself, but endures it all with a sweet smile. The one who never once talks to her father about this abuse, and who actually helps her sisters get themselves all tarted up in their finery, while she is dressed in rags. That Cinderella. Oh, you too? Uh-huh.

It’s all Charles Perrault’s fault. Well, not entirely. But only in his version does Cinderella not even ask to go to the ball. Only in his version – and any others based on it – does Cinderella match her two stepsisters up with members of the Prince’s court. A triple wedding takes place, and the sisters and their consolation prize husbands get to have their own quarters at the royal palace.

Now, I’m all for forgiveness, and I can’t say I prefer the comeuppance the sisters get in Aschenputtel, the Grimm brothers’ version – the pecking out of their eyes. But even so, that Perrault ending always bothered me as a child. So the mean, selfish people get to have a happy-ever-after as well, do they? So being nice and good: we needn’t bother with that, then? Waste of time, is it? Of course I’m being facetious, but let’s face it, children are naturally selfish creatures, and altruism is learned. And frankly, if we imagine Cinderella, the Sequel, it’s hard to picture those two suddenly being transformed into gracious human beings. A more likely scenario would contain enough tragic horrors to fill a tabloid newspaper for years: infidelity (their husbands were picked for them! They never actually fancied them), alcoholism (drowning their sorrows, being confronted daily with the awful reality that they will always be the supporting cast, never the stars), vindictive behaviour (unending efforts to drag Cinderella down to their level), assorted other addictions (shopping, gambling, drugs, dieting, cosmetic surgery…)

Ah yes, the cosmetic surgery. That’s another thing that features in Grimm, but not in Perrault. That cutting-off of bits of the feet, in an effort to squish them into that tiny slipper. It is a wonderfully gruesome image, with the blood oozing out (again, it is only in Perrault that the slipper is made of that transparent and incidentally impossibly brittle material, glass). Although Perrault’s tale pre-dates Grimm by over a hundred years, both were drawing on a traditional tale thousands of years old, and I suspect that the prevalent European versions would have been along the lines described by the Grimms.

Eastern versions are less brutal than that of the Grimm brothers. Interestingly, the Chinese version, Ye Xian (AD 850) does not contain any kind of foot mutilation – interesting, of course, because you would think it might, given the appalling Chinese tradition of foot binding. Although this practice seems not to have been introduced until about a hundred years later (during the Southern Tang dynasty, AD 935-975), the idea that tiny feet were considered desirable in a woman was clearly already prevalent. Yet there is no cutting-off of toes here.

This brings me to the second element that bothered me as a child: how the hell Cinderella could be the only one in the entire kingdom with a foot small enough to fit into it.

I mean, come on! Most western females are somewhere between a size 4 and a 7. Some take a size 3; there was a time long ago, when I could just fit into a size 2 ½, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. What size was she, for heaven’s sake?

The Chinese version has a way round this plot issue which makes a lot of sense to me: the slipper is magical. It knows who it belongs to, and can change its size every time anyone other than Ye Xian tries it on, so that it is always just too small. And it makes sense that the slipper is magical, because it was supplied by the magical fish that fulfils the role played by the Fairy Godmother in the Perrault version. Sometimes the introduction of magic can seem like a cop-out: not in this case. I think there is a greater internal logic to it.

The reason I chose Cinderella for my fairytale reflection is that my Lulu Baker trilogy, about a girl with a magic recipe book, has been described as a kind of modern Cinderella story. There are some very obvious reasons for this: Lulu is the only child of a widower, and her nemesis is the new love of his life, Varaminta le Bone – whom he is all set to marry. Varaminta is a glamorous forty-something ex-model with a ghastly son called Torquil. Both Varaminta and Torquil are charm itself around Lulu’s Dad, but vicious towards Lulu whenever he’s not around. Which reminds me: I haven’t even had a bitch about Cinderella’s dad yet! Must put that right.

What about the dad, eh?

That spineless wimp who just lets those domineering females rule the roost, either unaware of how they’re treating Cinderella, or worse, noticing it but failing to do anything about it. What a waste of space! Admittedly, the dad in my Lulu Baker books is completely blind to Varaminta’s faults, but I do explain his lack of involvement by making him extremely busy and away on business a lot of the time. I hope he comes across as reasonably sympathetic.

As well as the obvious parallels though, I discovered other similarities while researching this piece that I didn’t expect to find. For example, in the Basile version, Cenerentola (1634), there is a magical date tree; Cenerentola nurtures this tree, placing it in a golden bucket, hoeing the earth around it with a golden hoe, and wiping its leaves with a silken napkin. She is rewarded for her efforts when it grows prodigiously, and a fairy appears – the fairy godmother figure. This is similar to the way in which a magical bird emerges from the hazel tree in the Grimm brothers’ Aschenputtel. In the second and third of my Lulu Baker books, Lulu grows some of the magical ingredients for her recipes in her own garden.

Cassandra, a kind of real-life fairy godmother, does not emerge from a plant, however; she is the one who supplies the ingredients, and the seeds for the ones that Lulu must grow. Lulu even has to fertilize one of them with her own tears (which she finds a considerable challenge, even with the help of onions). I based this element on the ancient Sumerian story of Inanna, but Aschenputtel also fertilizes her hazel tree with her tears.

It could also be argued that the Grimm brothers’ heroine is a bit more proactive than Perrault’s. Early on in the Aschenputtel story, we have the following scene:

It happened that the father was once going to the fair, and he asked his two step-daughters what he should bring back for them. ‘Beautiful dresses,’ said one, ‘pearls and jewels,’ said the second. ‘And you, Cinderella [Aschenputtel],’ said he, ‘what will you have?’ ‘Father, break off for me the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home.’

This is interesting, because there are two possibilities as to why she has chosen this. The obvious reason is that she simply wants something to plant at her mother’s grave – which is what she does. This is where she weeps tears of grief onto the plant. So, yet another demonstration of her simple, virtuous nature: nothing more. Or is it? What if she knew that by tending the sapling lovingly, she would ultimately reap far greater rewards than the vulgar finery demanded by her greedy stepsisters? After all, she does go on to ask the tree outright for riches:

“Shiver and quiver, little tree,
Silver and gold throw down over me.”

Seems to me she had an inkling the hazel would have supernatural properties. Hey, good for her. She shows a bit more character than Perrault’s Cinderella, who would never presume to ask for anything – heaven forfend! Aschenputtel also asks help from the pigeons and the turtle doves in picking out the lentils her stepmother has thrown into the hearth. So I prefer to interpret her action as proactive, not only outwitting her stepsisters, but also demonstrating that slow, dedicated work might just be a better approach to life than stamping your foot and demanding things very loudly.

But there are probably as many differences as there are similarities between Cinderella and my Lulu Baker. For instance:

- Unlike Cinderella, Lulu isn’t perfect. She blunders into things, makes mistakes. And if she’s the victim of injustice, she sure as hell makes a noise about it! Meek she is not.
- Unlike Cinderella, Lulu is not beautiful. This is absolutely central to the story. Nor is she especially bothered about how she looks. She’s a bit lazy in that department, because her head is usually somewhere else. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty… the list of fairytale heroines whose physical beauty is a metaphor for their inner virtue – yawn – is endless. But where are the merely OK-looking ones? The ones whose best qualities lie in other areas – like being, say, fun to be around. A good laugh. Someone you might actually want as a friend. Hard to find, right?
- Unlike the Cinderella story, which is primarily about sibling rivalry, the main enemy in the Lulu stories is the stepmother figure. This is mostly because Lulu is younger than Cinderella: life is not yet about competing with contemporaries for romantic attention. True, she has a new stepbrother to contend with, but while he may be deeply unpleasant, he is not a direct competitor the way that Cinderella’s stepsisters are.
- Unlike the Cinderella story, it is the stepmother figure that gets her comeuppance – logical, since she is the main enemy. Even in the Grimm version, it is only the stepsisters that have their eyes pecked out; their mother escapes this fate. And after all, where marrying off daughters is a means of survival, or a dowry has to be provided, being a stepmother must be a most unenviable situation, laden with moral complexity. For most modern-day western stepmums, this is not the case. Varaminta, therefore, embodies all the characteristics of the stepsisters, as well as those of their mother.

All right, enough about ‘my’ Cinderella. Possibly you know of other modern Cinderellas – perhaps ones that are simpler tellings based on tradition that have altered the story according to the dominant philosophy of our time. Because let’s face it, Christanity, which provides the moral code for both Grimm and Perrault, arguably holds less sway today than it did then. Ye Xian’s story is influenced by religion of its time and place, as is the earliest known version of the Cinderella story, Rhodopis (Strabo, 1st century BC – though also mentioned by Herodotus five centuries earlier). I hate to say it, but perhaps what we have today is a sort of Christianity Lite. Or rather, Abrahamic-Religion-Lite. The Ten Commandments are good, they are right, but we’re not really bothered about taking the Lord’s name in vain, and can we please not have to stay in on the Sabbath as we’d rather go shopping. Also, loving our enemies is a bit hard. Thanks.

Depressing, isn’t it? But don’t get me started. Anyway I can’t assume the moral high ground here: if I adhered wholeheartedly to the Christian ideal, I would love and revere the character of Perrault’s Cinderella, and I don’t.

So: who would you pick as a Cinderella for our times, and why?

Picture credits:
Cinderella and her Godmother: silhouette by Arthur Rackham
Trying on the Shoe by Aubrey Beardsley
Aschenputtel by Alexander Zick (1845 - 1907) Wikimedia Commons 
Cinderella: The Glass Slipper by Kay Nielsen

And the winners are...

Thanks to all of you who visited the trailer and left comments!  The winners of the three signed copies of Dark Angels are:

Anonymous (Barbara M)
Swan Artworks

If you'd like to email me ( I'm changing the @ sign here to deter spam, but you can replace it) - with your addresses, I'll send out the copies asap.

The Dark Angels Book Trailer Giveaway!

The countdown has started!  In just about three hours, at 12 noon UK time, we'll be finding out who has won three signed copies of 'Dark Angels'!  All you have to do, if you haven't already, is watch the Dark Angels trailer and comment either on Youtube, or here on the blog - and in three hours time I'll be announcing the winners.  There's also a competition for another three copies on twitter: visit me at!/KathLangrish  and retweet my competition tweets.

Here's the trailer again: 

With all your help, it's been viewed over 470 times this week, and I have to admit I'd love to get it up to 500...  And Fairytale Reflections will be back this afternoon, after the winners are announced, so please come back and visit then, too!

Friday 5 August 2011

Dark Angels - Competition and Book Trailer

Please excuse my excitement.  (And the interruption to Fairytale Reflections, which will be back next week.) 

The fact is I’m jumping up and down, because my home-made booktrailer for my fourth book, ‘Dark Angels’ (US title ‘The Shadow Hunt’) went up on Youtube yesterday.  To celebrate, I’m launching a COMPETITION to win three signed copies of ‘Dark Angels’.  All you have to do to enter, is view the trailer and leave a comment about it either on Youtube or here on the blog.  Look out also for a parallel competition on twitter. Both will run until next Friday, August 12th, when there’ll be a draw for the winners. 

The book is set on and around the sinister, atmospheric Shropshire hill which in real life is called ‘Stiperstones’(and is pictured at the top of my blog).  In my book I renamed it ‘Devil’s Edge.’  The real hill has a formation of rocks on the crest known as The Devil’s Chair: the legend goes that the Devil comes to sit in it when the mist descends on the hill (so you’d better beware); and if anyone else sits in it, an immediate thunderstorm will break out.  I took the liberty of changing this slightly:

Wolf took another glance at the ridge.  Up on the very top, he had heard there was a road.  A road leading nowhere, a road no one used.  For if anyone was so bold as to walk along it, especially at night, he’d hear the clamour of hounds and the blowing of horns, the cracking of whips and the rumbling of a cart.  And out of the dark would burst the Devil’s own dog pack, dashing beside a black wagon drawn by goats with fiery eyes, crammed full of screaming souls bound for the pits of hell.

So off I went to Shropshire with a notebook and camera.  We stayed, in case anyone is interested, in the quaint little market town of Bishop’s Castle, and we tramped over Stiperstones in rain, in mist, and in sweeping wind.  We visited a wolf sanctuary set in a narrow little valley – it began to snow as we descended the steep track, and I’ll never forget the snow falling precipitously past the dark serried ranks of fir trees, and the wolves howling in the winter landscape.  We climbed the grassy mound which is all that’s left of the 11th century Montgomery stronghold of Hen Domen – the motte and bailey castle replaced by the stone fortress at Montgomery.  Neither were right for the filming: in the end we chose the oldest parts of nearby Stokesay Castle. 

And on a later trip, courtesy of a Shropshire mining and caving club, we crawled into the tight dark passages of an abandoned Roman copper mine, which became the entrance to elfland in my book.  It was very narrow and low: we went in on hands and knees: at one point you had to lie down. I’m not good in narrow spaces, so this shows what I will do in the interests of research. I wanted the underground sequences in my book to be truly authentic: I wanted the reader to feel as pinched and constrained as I was. The cave is called Ogof Llanymynech and may go as far back as the Bronze Age.  A hoard of Roman coins was found there in 1965. (I love the sense of deep time in the British landscape.)

So the landscape of my story is a patchwork of real locations pieced together, recognisable as the Welsh Marches, but renamed and reshaped so that I had the freedom of fiction as well as – I hope – a sense of real history and place. 

Writing the script for the trailer was almost like composing a poem: distilling the essence of a 65,000 word book into 100 words.  In fact the whole process was very like making poetry, trying to combine evocative words, imagery and sound. Anyway, here you can see all the elements I wove together in the book.  The stark skyline of ‘Devil’s Edge’, the rough moorland, the lonely castle, the claustrophobic darkness of the mine. Listen carefully and you may even hear wolves.

My thanks to Richard Hughes of the band We Are Goose, who composed and performed the haunting music, and edited and assembled the film.