Friday, 30 September 2016

Setting the bird free - Lari Don

I wear various hats as a writer. I write for a variety of ages, and the difference in writing for toddlers and for teens might seem like the biggest difference I face. But actually, the difference between the fiction I write (for all ages) and the retellings of traditional tales I write (for picture books and 8-12 years) is the real divide. That’s what requires the real shift in focus and process and skills.

With fiction, I make it up. (Obviously!)

With retellings, I use what I've learnt about words, imagery, rhythm and narrative, to retell a story that already exists. I’m not making up a story, I’m crafting a new way to tell an old story.

But of course, sometimes I do make bits up. Sometimes I have to fill gaps. Sometimes I want to expand on the exciting bits, and cut out the family trees. And sometimes I make changes because I just can’t leave the story at the ending the traditional tale offers.

I don’t believe in the inevitability of happy endings. I don’t think children do either. If a reader was sure that every story would end in the best possible way with every character smiling and content, where would the tension be, what would draw the reader on to see what happens next? So, I don’t believe in happy endings every single time, not in my fiction, nor in my retellings of old stories.

But sometimes there are endings that just don’t satisfy me.

I can do two things about that. I can decide to not tell the story, if I feel that to change the ending would be to rip the heart from the story, or make the story something so completely different that it’s not a retelling, it’s a story inspired by, or reacting to, the original trad tale.

That’s why you will rarely find a story in one of my collections where the marriage of a pretty girl to a brave boy is considered a satisfactory resolution. And you'll NEVER find a story where a girl is given away as a prize.

But sometimes the ending just needs a tweak. Sometimes my disquiet about the ending isn’t about a main character, it’s about a minor character who just hasn’t been given a resolution to their story. And then, I don’t think it unbalances the story to change it or add to it.

For example, in my recent collection of horse stories, Horse of Fire, a boy is helped by a talking horse to capture a free wild golden bird for a demanding king. And at the end of the tale, the horse is respected, the boy is the new king, and the bird is in a cage. Happy, apparently, because it has an apple to eat. But I couldn’t tell the story like that. When I told it to kids, I couldn’t leave that free-flying bird in a tiny cage, even if it was a golden cage, even if there was a fancy apple. So I had the boy, as part of his growth as a hero, risk his own future to set the bird free.

And I realised that is one of the powers and joys of retelling a story: you can, in your vision and your world, set the story bird free.

I realise this is me imposing my modern sensibility on an ancient story. The original tellers cared about the relationship between the boy and the horse, and the relationship between the boy and the king, and the magic of the bird. I care about the bird itself as well. So I set the bird free.

Yes, the more I think about it, it probably is the animal-loving vegetarian in me. Just like the feminist in my can’t see a girl given away as a prize, the animal lover in me can’t leave a wild animal in a cage.

Because the other major change I’ve made to a story recently was in a collection of Viking saga tales called The Dragon’s Hoard. I chose to retell a story about a young man who transported a polar bear from Greenland to Denmark. The original Viking saga was all about the cleverness and luck of the trader getting the bear so far south, and it didn’t tell you what happened to the bear once he had made his owner rich and respected. So I just kept the story going a little bit longer to find out what happened to the bear too. Partly for my own satisfaction, and partly because I was fairly sure that my young readers would be more interested in the bear than in the merchant!

Setting the bird free and sending the polar bear home are not the biggest changes I’ve made when retelling stories (I always feel that so long as I respect the heart of the story I can do what I like with the rest of it) but they might be the most satisfying!

So, I wonder what bird I will set free next?

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales, a teen thriller and novellas for reluctant readers. 



Joan Lennon said...

"Setting the bird free and sending the polar bear home" - thank you for doing that, Lari, and for such an interesting post!

Nick Green said...

Apparently C S Lewis once received a letter from a young reader, worrying that Aslan had forgotten the animals who were turned into stone over their Christmas dinner. Aslan had saved all the stone animals from the Witch's castle, and the battlefield, but there was no mention of him ever finding those other statues.

Lewis had to write back hastily and assure the child that Aslan had gone back and sorted this out later, which is why he was missing from the feast at the end.

You're right - children do notice and care about these things!

Lynne Benton said...

What a lovely idea, Lari - I'm often put off a good story if it has an unsatisfactory ending, so your idea of continuing the story and setting the bird (or the polar bear) free is a great one! (At least folk/fairy tales allow you to do this!)

Susan Price said...

I realise this is me imposing my modern sensibility on an ancient story.

Relax Lari. This is what storytellers have always done. Your horse of fire is, I think, one of the Russian epics - in other words, it grew from a highly stratified society where there were Czars at one end and serfs at the other and neither serfs nor animals counted for much.

Perrault shaped his Cinderella and Red Riding Hood according to his ideas of how things should be in his highly-stratified and male-dominated society. His Cinderella is very different - as I'm sure you know - from versions such as Kate Crackernuts and Bonehead, which weren't told by a courtier for courtiers.

So if you change your telling to suit our society, good. These old tales never had one 'authentic' version. They always shifted and changed according to teller, audience and locality.

Good luck to your feminist, animal-loving retellings!

Lari Don said...

Susan, you are so reassuring, and also right I think. And you put it so well! Lynne - I agree that the ending can spoil the memory of a previous enjoyed story, so it's always worth getting it right. NIck - I love your CS Lewis anecdote, both for the child who noticed and the wonderful author who cared enough to give the perfect answer! and Joan - glad you enjoyed the post!