Archive for November, 2012

Why retelling old stories is scary (and it’s not because of the wolf’s sharp teeth…)

Retelling an old story which everyone already knows is a bit scary; retelling an old story almost no-one knows is even more of a responsibility.

My first retelling of a well-known fairy tale – Little Red Riding Hood – has just been published. When I was writing it, I had to decide which bits of the many versions of Little Red I would weave together. I did a lot of research, then chose the elements which were most vivid and which worked best in my voice. So I hope I’ve retold a story which you will recognise, but which will also surprise you. A journalist recently asked me how I had changed the story, what spin or twist I had put in, but that wasn’t what I was aiming to do with this retelling. Every major plot element comes from one of the older tales, though I have told the story in my own words, and I’ve tried to make a few of the things which never made sense to me (why doesn’t she realise it’s a wolf in the bed, not her granny, for goodness sake? Can’t she tell the difference?) seem more plausible (she sees more of the wolf each time she lets extra light into the room: opening the curtains, lighting the fire etc.)

But it’s a huge responsibility retelling a story like Little Red Riding Hood. Children already know it, and if you write something which differs from the version they know, they might think it’s wrong! (Which can prompt interesting discussions with kids about how traditional stories are passed on and changed.) Also, this book, with Celia Chauffrey’s gorgeous pictures, might over the years become some children’s very first experience of Red Riding Hood, so when they read other versions they might think my version is the right one and other versions are wrong… That’s a big and scary responsibility!

But I’m very glad that this story of a tricksy, talking, toothy, people-eating wolf is a story most children already know. Because if they didn’t, they’d probably find it far too scary and gory to enjoy it!

I’m now also retelling some stories which aren’t so well known: six animal tales from around the world (two already published, about a tortoise and a tiger, another four in the next couple of years, including a bear and a fox); a collection of Scottish folktales (coming out next summer, which contains stories I’ve never seen in other illustrated collections); and a collection of heroine stories from around the world (most of which are very obscure.) And that’s a completely different kind of responsibility.

Because I do change stories when I tell them out loud. I deliberately change them so they make sense in my head, so they work in my voice, so they are dramatic in the way that I like a story to grab and hold the attention of an audience. Therefore the story I tell is never exactly as it was when it was written down, a hundred, a thousand or four thousand years ago. And that story, the one I tell out loud, the one I’ve changed to become my story, is the one I write down. I’m always quite honest about that, but now these versions are being printed and published, available on paper for anyone to read, forever… that is a serious responsibility.

With Little Red Riding Hood, if I make a minor change, I know that kids will see another half dozen versions over the course of their reading lives, they will compare those different versions, realise there are many ways to tell a story and decide which is their favourite. But when they read my retellings of the untrustworthy Korean tiger or the Witch of Lochlann or Inanna tricking the god of wisdom, they might never see that story anywhere else. My version will be the only version they know. And that’s a really heavy responsibility.

But I’m not worrying too much about it. These are great stories, I’m writing them as well as I know how, I’m really excited about sharing them and I want you to enjoy reading them. Then if you want to study them more deeply by reading the ancient originals, I’m quite happy to point you in the right direction!

Here is the gorgeous front cover of LRRH, and I’ll update on you on the other retellings nearer the time!

Little Red Riding Hood