Sarah Prineas’s first foray into YA fiction is a retelling of the Cinderella story where the Fairy Godmother is evil and nothing is quite as it seems.
Ash & Bramble is a dark, superbly feminist take on the concept of story, narrative arc, and what the idea of a standardized Happily Ever After might really imply.
Here are three things kidlit writers can learn from Prineas’s latest book.
(Mild spoilers below!)
1. Capture the power of a retelling.
Prineas’s retelling of the Cinderella tale is compelling. Glass slippers make an appearance, yes, but so do musings on identity and fate and what it means to play a role in someone else’s narrative. Ash & Bramble doesn’t just turn the Cinderella story on its head, it also speaks to the nature of stories themselves.
How do stories get their power? What does it really mean that so many of the Western canon’s fairy tales end in a similar way: with a marriage to a prince, and a bland, predictable Happily Ever After?
Prineas plays with the tropes and the characters found in so many classic Western tales, all the while spinning a fascinating, subversive story of her own. Without being too self-aware, the book works on many different levels—making the resolution all the more satisfying when it comes.
2. Embrace the dark side.
Ash & Bramble is also effective because it’s so utterly creepy. Taking the dark side of many well-known fairy tales and running with it, Prineas conjures a world in which the Fairy Godmother heads up a sweatshop and memories can be erased with the touch of a thimble.
It’s obvious Prineas spent a lot of time pondering elements of the Cinderella story that are often considered nice, even lovely—a new gown, fantastic! She’s transformed, how wonderful!—and then uncovering the fundamental strangeness within them. When the Godmother dresses Penelope (the book’s Cinderella figure), Prineas effectively portrays the vulnerability and fear Penelope feels as she stands there, naked, awaiting her new “look.”
In a way, Prineas tells a completely new story, one that begins in the Godmother’s sweatshop, and includes elements not present in the seminal Cinderella tale. Yet, in searching out the strangeness in the tropes as old as time, Prineas manages to both create her own narrative and inform our reading of the classic Cinderella tale.
3. A well-crafted message will never feel preachy.
This book is unabashedly feminist. There’s a whole cast of complex female characters, and time and time again, women both save the day and get the credit for once, too.
Ash & Bramble critiques commonly-held ideas of what a girl’s Happily Ever After should look like, and consistently makes the case that every woman deserves to choose how she wants to live out her life, and with whom.
But the real key is that the book manages this without being too overt or moralistic. Ash & Bramble is a fascinating story, full of quirky details and multifaceted characters. And rather than layering the message on top of all this, Prineas has woven it in, made it an integral part of a well-crafted story.
It’s a book with a message, not a message-driven book, and it’s stitched as deftly and tightly as the work of Godmother’s captives and their fairy tale thread.
Want to discuss Ash & Bramble or other great YA and MG titles? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.