There is no helpless princess waiting to be rescued by a prince in the latest children’s book by Swift Current author Jessica Williams.
She has updated a classic fairy tale and created a story for modern young readers with Sleeping Brilliant.
The story might seem familiar to anyone who has read the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. There is still an angry fairy that casts an evil curse and a princess that falls asleep when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, but readers will be just as surprised as the prince, who arrives at the castle full of expectations to be the hero of the story.
Williams felt it was time to retell this familiar tale in a way that does not rely on some of the outdated ideas often found in fairy tales.
“I have always loved fairy tales, but when I started reading them to my daughter, she started asking questions about why does the princess always go live with the prince and questions that I didn't have a good answer for,” she said. “That really got me thinking about how outdated the messages and ideals in fairy tales really are. They're classics and they will always be around, but they're not necessarily really applicable anymore. The helpless princess that needs to be rescued by the brave and handsome prince, and that's not really where we're at anymore.”
She felt the fairy tale of a sleeping princess provided a suitable foundation for a new story. The princess completely depends on someone else to safe her in the original story. Other details also provided opportunities for reinterpretation, for example the gifts offered by the fairies to the baby princess.
“All of the things that the fairies give her as gifts are these qualities,” she noted. “She's beautiful and she sings sweetly and she can dance. All of these things are great qualities, but are they really the foundational qualities that we're hoping to raise our kids with? So there seemed like a lot in the story that could be changed and maybe updated a little bit.”
It was not too difficult to make some of the changes to the original story. Princess Niamh, which means Brilliant, receives gifts from the fairies that are appropriate to what today’s parents would want their children to have. A more significant challenge for Williams was to come up with a feasible way for the princess to wake up from her sleep without the assistance of a prince.
“There's a little bit of wiggle room and creative license you can have in picture books and I can leave things up to the imagination, but I wanted it to at least look like it was possible and the thing that she creates could work,” she said.
She incorporated science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) ideas in this part of the story to allow the princess to look after herself.
She felt the use of these STEM concepts helped to modernize the story and she hopes the subtle message to young readers will be that they can take initiative and be creative to let their brilliance shine.
Williams created the illustrations for Sleeping Brilliant. This is her sixth children’s book and the second time she also illustrated a story. Her previous illustrations were done in watercolour and this time she used digital art.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “It was something that I have been playing with the idea of doing for quite a while now, and then this year I decided it was finally time to start really dabbling in digital illustration and see where it would take me. … I remember feeling very overwhelmed at the start, when I was mapping out what it was going to look like, but then just kept reminding myself that it's just one page at a time.”
It is a different process from using an illustrator, and with her previous books she has enjoyed that interaction.
“I did worry that doing both pieces myself would remove that secondary set of eyes from the picture book that I typically get from hiring an external illustrator,” she said. “They would read the story and come up with their own take on it, which has been really valuable and really fantastic for my previous works. I didn't have that secondary opinion on how things could look or how things should look. So it was a little bit more like finding my way in the dark.”
She will consider both options when she needs to create illustration for her future publications. She felt the decision to use an external illustrator will depend on the type of book project.
“I am continuing to try to improve my art and improve my own processes and learn more about illustration,” she said. “I'm sure that down the road my style will probably change. I did enjoy it, though, and I think I will continue to do some, but I think there are also going to be projects that will just be far better served by having somebody else to do the illustrations.”
She wanted to create illustrations for Sleeping Brilliant that fitted in with the book’s revisionist approach. The characters therefore have a different appearance from those in a traditional fairy tale.
“When I was drawing them, I did not want the typical cookie cutter blond hair, blue-eyed princess,” she said. “We have a lot of those and I think that need has been met. We need some other looks to our characters in kids’ books. I think representation is so important for kids in the books that they read to see someone that could be them. So I guess I wanted to switch it up and make sure few of the characters look like each other.”
Although her latest book is a reinterpretation of a traditional story, she still enjoys reading the old fairy tales.
“They still have a place,” she said. “I still love fairy tales. I think that maybe they should be viewed with a critical eye and not taken as a literal representation of what we should strive for, because they're not. They were written in a different time. A lot of them are cautionary tales in a way and they did have messages that were relevant to their time, but I think that they're still entertaining stories. If they weren't, they would not have survived.”
Sleeping Brilliant was released on June 23 to coincide with International Women in Engineer Day. Williams held a virtual launch party on Facebook during which she read the story to viewers.
The book is available in hardcover, paperback and eBook. It can be purchased online through Amazon, Chapters and Barnes & Noble, or through her own websites at www.jessicawilliamsonpaper.com and www.allwriteherepublishing.ca