Saturday, February 6, 2010

12x4 Equals a Whole Lot of Dancing Princesses

There are trends, and then there's "something in the air." For example, a few years ago I thought, Hey, nobody's really written a retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses"! So I wrote one. I finished it a year and a half ago, and it's still unpublished. But as soon as I was well underway (and afterwards), not one, but three different novel-length retellings of the story came out! Each time, I worried that people would later think, like in a grade-school class, that I had "copied." I even had to change the title because one of the three came too close to mine.

This has happened to me before, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. After my picture book, The Secret-Keeper, was published, at least one blogger remarked on the similarity of my premise to the premise of The Safe-Keeper's Secret by Sharon Shinn. Sigh. I had written my story when I was 23, sold it 13 years later after some minor revision, and then, while waiting 6-1/2 years for the illustrations and publication to kick in, watched Shinn's book come out. Around the same time, Hollywood made a contemporary children's movie with a similar theme.

It's also happening with my newest manuscript to some extent. But I suppose when you set out to create a YA paranormal suspense novel in the current market and eliminate vampires, werewolves, and zombies, you're not going to be the only author to surf the next wave in the genre, one I'll loosely call psychic abilities.

So in case you were wondering, sometimes what looks like imitation truly is a handful of writers thinking, Hmm, nobody's done this yet. Call it cosmic irony, synchronicity, whatever: the lightbulb flashes on above all of their heads at the exact same time. Then two or three years later, a crop of books with certain similarities appears in your local bookstore.

Of course, I felt compelled to read the other versions of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" to see what the other three writers had done with the story. (Plus I have a couple of shelves in my library just for fairy tale retellings!) I am pleased to report that all of the books are good, each giving us a new way of looking at the original fairy tale. The first is Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing (1/07), the second is Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball (1/09), and the third, which I read a few days ago—prompting this post—is Diane Zahler's The Thirteenth Princess (2/10).

Marillier, who is best known for her adult fantasy writing, sets WILDWOOD DANCING in Romania, in a castle called Piscul Dracului. But her "princesses" are five sisters, the daughters of the wealthy merchant who now owns the castle. The girls have a magical secret—since they were very young, they've been able to slip through a hidden portal in their bedchamber to visit the world of Faerie. There they dance and befriend the odd creatures of the Other Kingdom.

When the girls are older, trouble besets them. Their father has gone away to regain his health in sunnier climes. Second oldest daughter Jena, our first-person narrator, tells how her cousin Cezar gradually takes control of the household, the business, and the family, oppressing the sisters in various ways and eventually proclaiming his determination to marry her. She is unable to get word to her father because Cezar is intercepting her letters. Cezar also casts a disdainful eye on Jena's longtime companion, a pet frog named Gogu who, it will be obvious to readers, is under some kind of a spell. Spurred on by mysterious deaths in the valley, Cezar sets out to destroy the creatures of the Other Kingdom and eliminate the portal he rightly suspects is being concealed from him by his cousins.

Meanwhile, eldest sister Tatiana has fallen in love with one of the Other Kingdom's darker denizens, a man named Sorrow who might be the vampire attacking the locals. When Tati is kept away from her love and believes she might lose him, she begins to die of a broken heart.

With the help of her sisters, the unpredictable fox-riding witch DrĂ¢guta, and her own determination, Jena is finally able to set things right, but not without a struggle. Written for teen readers, Marillier's story is beautifully crafted and a fascinating recasting of the original tale. You'll find yourself rooting for Jena and her sisters at every turn, not to mention hating Cezar, who is a terribly effective villain, as much for his sexism and bullying as for his hidden crimes.

PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL sticks to the original story more closely than Marillier's book. Every night, twelve princesses go to bed and are locked into their room. Every morning, their dancing shoes are worn through. In Jessica Day George's retelling, the dozen princesses are dancing in order to fulfill a contract their mother made with an evil sorcerer imprisoned beneath the earth—the heartless King Under Stone. But the sorcerer manipulated their mother, now deceased, and he has nefarious plans for the girls, who will clearly never escape his clutches...

At least, not without the help of a brave young soldier named Galen, who ends up working as an undergardener at the palace and soon develops feelings for the eldest princess. Rose is the weary, harried mother figure to her eleven younger siblings. When she falls ill, the King Under Stone has no patience with her troubles. I like that George give us a sense of how hard it would be to be one of the twelve dancing princesses of fairy tale fame: it turns out enchanted princesses don't get any sick leave.

Add in political intrigue and the ominous fates of those who try to help the princesses, and things seem to get worse by the minute. But Galen has received magical help in the form of an invisibility cloak, while his talent for knitting turns out to be surprisingly useful. As you can imagine, it's a little difficult to sort out twelve characters, a problem George solves by giving us clearer portraits of a few of them—Pansy and Poppy, for example. But this is really Rose's story, and perhaps Galen's even more so. Princess of the Midnight Ball is a warm and lively read for the 9- to 12-year-old crowd.

THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS has a slightly younger feel than the other two books, especially as the story begins. Diane Zahler imagines a king who is increasingly angry with his wife for giving him daughters. When she dies in childbirth bearing a thirteenth daughter, he banishes the newborn to the castle kitchens in his rage. At seven, sort-of servant Zita learns that she is sister to the princesses and daughter to the king. She doesn't bemoan her lot, but she does sneak around behind her father's back befriending her lovely older siblings. Happily, the older girls are very willing to take her under their wings. Zita also befriends a stable boy named Breckin whose brother is a soldier (aha!).

It isn't until she is older that Zita starts to worry that her sisters might be under a spell. For one thing, the twelve princesses don't understand themselves why whenever suitors come to call, they are unable to speak. Thus they all remain unmarried. Then Zita's sisters begin to appear weary and sickly, and their shoes turn up with the soles worn through every morning.

With Breckin's assistance, Zita investigates her sisters' troubles; she also discovers a helpful witch living in hiding in the woods. (The king has banned magic from the kingdom, or so he thinks.) But somebody is watching Zita, and she still hasn't figured out who is behind the malevolent spells. She even worries that the king himself has done this terrible thing to his daughters.

Zahler's personable retelling offers readers a nice build-up of suspense. I like the author's vision of a castle on a lake, which starts out as a romantic gift along the lines of the Taj Majal and then literally gets moldy. Zita is an appealing main character and first-person narrator, while Breckin and the witch Babette bring freshness to the plot. Breckin further provides Zita with a younger, parallel version of the story's key romance. In fact, even the king has a romance, since the tragic history of his great love for the deceased queen influences the plot in many ways. About the only detail I found distracting is the ease with which Zita and Breckin learn to become invisible. Otherwise, Diane Zahler gives us a hopeful, magical reinvention of the story of the twelve dancing princesses—plus one.

Wildwood Dancing is probably the best of the three in terms of creativity and craft, but it is intended for a YA audience (though fine for tweens, as well). If your 3rd-7th grader is a fan of fantasy adventure in general and princess stories in particular, Princess of the Midnight Ball and The Thirteenth Princess are both excellent picks.

As we examine different versions of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," I think the upside of multiple retellings becomes clear. From a reading standpoint, it can be very satisfying to discover different takes on the same well-loved tale. Witness the many middle grade and YA versions of "Cinderella" that came out a few years back, most notably Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted. On a broader scale, it's like the way those of us who enjoy mysteries find ourselves reading numerous books in the genre, each a variation on the same classic question of "Who done it?" And of course, countless readers who've finished Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books then seek out other YA vampire series, looking to recapture if not re-envision the magic.

Picture hundreds of writers out there, feverishly tapping away on laptops in their garrets, trying to come up with stories to tell. It's often said that there are really only seven plots. For example, how many incarnations of Romeo and Juliet or star-crossed lovers can you list off the top of your head? As a very old and famous book puts it, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

A justification for the manuscript sitting on my computer? Well, yes. But I find myself intrigued by the notion of storytelling as a collective endeavor, a kind of game in which we build and vary myths, sharing them back and forth among writers and readers alike the way children on playgrounds remake and pass along jump-rope rhymes year in and year out.

Note for Worried Parents: The Thirteenth Princess mentions the king's "dalliances" in his younger years and makes reference to unwed mothers among the castle servants. Some readers may also be bothered by the king's rejection of his youngest daughter, though this is later softened a bit. Wildwood Dancing is intended for teens and has a more mature tone than the other two, but contains no objectionable material other than menace from the darker creatures of the fey.

If you're a published writer who's experienced But-I-just-wrote-this-itis, please tell us about it in the comments!

Finally: This post is linked to Kidlitosphere's February Carnival of Children's Books, hosted this month by Sally Apokedak at her site, Whispers of Dawn. Link through for a set of great book reviews and more.

Update (10/8/10): And the madness continues... There are two more retellings of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" scheduled for publication now, one in 2011 and the other in 2012. An MG and a YA. I'm thinking I'll wait a few years on mine!

Update #2 (9/11/11): The two books are Heather Dixon's Entwined (Spring 2011) and Merrie Haskell's The Princess Curse (Fall 2011).


storyqueen said...

Kate, this is a great post! So many, MANY times I have written something, been tinkering away with it trying to get it right, only to see that someone else beat me to the punch. If only I'd been faster....

Sometimes something will seem close to an idea we have or a manuscript we're working on, even though the similarities are superficial. For example, when I wrote Good Night, Good Knight, I saw a book that came out before mine was scheduled to called Good Knight. That was the extent of what the stories had in common. But had I known there was another book that shared a similar title, I might not have written mine. So, usually while I am working on something, I try NOT to read anything that might be even remotely like it, or I will give up hope.

And, yeah, I'd been working on idea for about 3 years called The Adventures of Stick-Boy....and then Jeff has to go and publish the Wimpy Kid series and, it would look like I'm the copycat if I pursued publication.

Jennifer said...

I have Thirteenth Princess on my shelf just waiting for me....I counted up my order lists this year and while paranormal romance are still top, Girls Who Are Psychic is gaining ground. Some of them are simply awful. Sigh. I am counting on you to give us a strong but not unbelievable main character. Like Meg! Will we hear more about Meg someday? Or her friends?

Kate Coombs said...

Shelley, Oh, I have to admit, I love hearing that you've been through it, too! There's something oddly guilt-producing about the experience, not to mention all the eye-rolling and even the fist-shaking. I try to remind myself that my take on a given theme really WILL be different because I have a different voice and different ideas--same goes for you, of course! :)

Jennifer, I think you'll like my MC, and there's a young witch in the story, as well, so it's partly a paranormal, though the romance is pretty much on the fringes. My heroine is not a traditional sort of psychic, but it makes an okay analogy for what she can do. As for Meg, I have notes for Book 3, which starts off with a mistaken identity version of Sleeping Beauty, but my publisher has yet to commit. So we'll see--thanks for asking. Enjoy Thirteenth Princess!

Anne Ursu said...

Six months before my Greek-myth themed book came out, Percy Jackson was birthed into the world. I had no idea. There were two other Greek myth books out the same month as mine, and several more that year. All too soon after Percy to have been influenced by him. We all just thought it was a good idea.

Kate Coombs said...

Anne--Oh, ouch! Yours is a far-too-perfect example. It really does seem to happen in little waves... But I will add that your books are terrific, proving my point about how a different take on the same concept can be invaluable. (I especially like Philonecron, one of the most delightfully awful and narcissistic villains in all of kidlit!)

Anne Ursu said...

Wow, thank you so much!

Brimful Curiosities said...

Do you have any recommendations for a picture book version of the story appropriate for kindergarten age? The Thirteenth Princess has a wonderful, eye-catching cover!

Kate Coombs said...

I know, isn't it pretty? Fairy tale fanatic that I am, I own six versions of the picture book. Of those, four are probably too difficult for most kindergartners, with a lot of text compared to pictures. In other words, they're story books, meant for slightly older children to listen to, maybe second or third graders. FYI, those editions are Marianna Mayer and K.Y. (Kinuko) Craft's version, one by John Cech and Lucy Corvino, and one by Ruth Sanderson. The fourth is more creative, an urban retelling by Debbie Allen (the dancer) called Brothers of the Knight, illustrated by Kadir Nelson and featuring twelve brothers instead of twelve sisters.

For kindergartners, I'd suggest either Rachel Isadora's version or Jane Ray's. Of the two, Rachel Isadora's has the simplest, most child-friendly text. Isadora sets the story in Africa, which is fun, but I find myself wondering whether kids might have trouble distinguishing some of the highly textured-looking cut-paper figures. But maybe that's just me!

Jane Ray has a distinctive illustrative style that works well with this story. She gives the soldier an eye patch, which I thought was interesting. There's more text than in Isadora's book, but the storytelling is still fairly straightforward, especially when compared to the four books listed above.

Hope this helps!

Kaethe said...

As a reader, let me just say I don't mind it a bit. It actually makes me and my daughters really happy to discover multiple different takes on the same idea. And I'm all full of fangirl squee because we loved Good Night Good Knight and Anne's Cronus Chronicles!

Kate Coombs said...

Kaethe--Oh, I know! More good stuff! And yes, Shelley Moore Thomas and Anne Ursu are fantastic!

I do hope you've read some of the classic fairy tale retellings, like Eleanor Farjeon's The Silver Curlew and The Glass Slipper. (See my earlier post on that:

Kaethe said...

I haven't, but I will. Thanks for the suggestions!