Father Christmas’ Childhood

Father Christmas’ Childhood

Father Christmas’ Childhood

A review of Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2015).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Matt Haig’s adorable children’s book A Boy Called Christmas sets out to fill in the details of holiday tradition and fill in gaps in the folklore and mythology of Father Christmas (the British name for Santa Claus), and specifically to fill in details that would be relevant to his target audience by asking the question “What would Santa Claus’ youth be like?” The story starts with an 11 year old boy living in poverty who has been nicknamed Christmas because his birthday fell on Christmas and takes him on a magical quest fuelled by his belief and his desire to see his father who had gone to the North. Like many magical quest narratives, he undergoes the traditional fantasy narrative of picking up helpers along the way. These helpers allow him to encounter the “Other” and learn from those experiences, becoming changed by the animals and supernatural characters he brings along with him on his voyage.

Haig follows the tradition of writing Santa’s life as a fantasy tale that was established by L. Frank Baum in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. He provides details to his tale, specifying where each of Father Christmas’ traditions come from as he battles the monstrous and spreads joy. Most tales have tended toward leaving gaps in knowledge and leaving it up to the reader’s imagination, rather than setting down specific origins for Santa’s behaviour as Baum and Haig have done. Haig’s tale details how Father Christmas first gets his red hat, why he first begins putting toys in stockings, how he comes to acquire toys from elves, how he begins to use his distinctive laugh, and, perhaps most importantly, what motivates him to believe that he needs to spread joy through gift-giving.

Yet, A Boy Called Christmas isn’t just a detailled mythology. In choosing a boy living in poverty with only a turnip carved like a doll as a toy, he brings attention to issues of poverty and how they affect children, while also bringing attention to the fact that many human “naughty” behaviours have come from living under constant oppression. His character, Father Christmas, uses his knowledge of human nature to begin searching for ways to increase human happiness and decrease misery and he situates expressions of joy and caring as the central feature for a better society (one that shares resources and takes time to enjoy life).

Haig initially portrays the elves in this narrative as people who have become xenophobic and joyless as a result of fear mongering by the elf newspaper and explores the power of overthrowing regimes that are based on isolationist policies and racism. As much as this is a story about Christmas, it is also a tale about revolution and calling into question hate-based and fear-based discourse.

This is a book of enlightenment – not just because of the happy, joyful content, but because it reminds readers that they have the power to stop being afraid and make positive changes. It is a book about growing up as an individual, but also growing up as a society.

To discover more about Matt Haig, go to http://www.matthaig.com

To find out more about A Boy Called Christmas, go to http://www.matthaig.com/a-boy-called-christmas/

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A Krampus-fur Dress for Cinderella

A Krampus-fur Dress for Cinderella

A Krampus-fur Dress for Cinderella

A review of Steven Grimm’s “Villainess Ascending” in He Sees You When He’s Creepin’: Tales of Krampus (World Weaver Press, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Folklore and fairy tale collide in Steven Grimm’s “Villainess Ascending”, a tale that adds a monstrous twist to the tale of Cinderella. Grimm begins his story with the mythology that there have been multiple past Cinderellas and this one has gone through the same things as the others – a dead devoted mother, a remarried father, a stepmother and two stepsisters and like the other Cinderellas, this one doesn’t want a life of domestic servitude. Yet, Grimm adds a twist to the tale, setting the Prince’s ball near Krampusnacht, a time when the Austrian devil of Christmas, Krampus, is out prowling the world for people in need of punishment.

Krampus and Cinderella have something in common. They both want justice… and the punishment of those they view as wicked and Grimm intertwines their narratives in a way that adds nuance to both the folklore of Krampus and the fairy tale of Cinderella. Grimm’s tale draws on other figures from Austrian holiday legends as well, bringing in Frau Holle and Frau Perchta. Frau Holle (about whom the Grimm Brothers have also written a fairy tale) is able to bring on snowfall by shaking out her bedding and her tales generally revolve around rewarding people for hard work and punishing people for laziness. Frau Perchta has a more sinister presence in Austrian folklore and is generally portrayed as having two faces – one kind and gentle and the other demonic. During the yule holidays, she shows her good face to good children and gives them treats… but shows her demonic face to naughty children to punish them. Frequently she is portrayed slitting open the bellies of children, removing their organs, and filling their bodies with pebbles and straw. Steven Grimm’s Perchta isn’t quite as terrifying though she is connected to Krampus. Instead, she is a force of nature with otherworldly magical powers and an interest in seeing humanity become good rather than corrupt.

“Villainess Ascending” is a tale about the damage that patriarchy does to humanity. It is a story about the way that patriarchy has taken away rights from women and has often only allowed women success in the world through marriage rather than through their own skills and abilities. Steven Grimm’s story focusses on the messages in the Cinderella tale about beauty meaning success, about the only way for women to rescue themselves from poverty is through marriage to a rich man, and about the intentional toxicity of the prince’s ball and generating jealousy between women.

Grimm subverts the simple idea of the punishment of the wicked by pointing out that “wickedness” has social roots and is created by social structures that damage people in oppressed groups.

To find out more about He Sees You When He’s Creepin’: Tales of Krampus, visit https://www.worldweaverpress.com/store/p121/He_Sees_You_When_He%27s_Creepin%27%3A_Tales_of_Krampus.html

Superhero Santa

Superhero Santa

Superhero Santa

A review of Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s Klaus: The New Adventures of Santa Claus (Boom! Studios, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I have to admit that I have an absolute love for Yule holiday traditions and stories, especially ones that play with and complicate traditional narratives. There is something otherworldly about the holidays and they inspire a need to read – particularly for those of us in the Northern hemisphere during Yule. The shorter days and longer nights call out for a need for hope and light, so reading optimistic holiday tales can evoke that feeling of hope in the long, long nights.

The second instalment in Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s Klaus graphic series, Klaus: The New Adventures of Santa Claus continues Morrison and Mora’s re-exploration of this reimagining of the Santa Claus figure. But where Santa was a jolly old man with a round little belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly, Morrison and Mora’s Santa Claus is a muscular middle aged man who seems to spend more time at the gym than he does eating milk and cookies. Klaus is a warrior figure, set against the tides of darkness that spring up around Yule, whose role is to fight evil… but also inspire hope and caring in children.

Klaus is fully steeped in Norse mythology, formed at the combination of the Joy rune, the Gift rune, and the Fire rune. He is a newly imagined figure who is steeped in the pagan origins of Yule and connected to other traditions like the Yule Lads of Iceland, the Yule Goat of Scandinavia, Ded Moroz of Russia, and the Frost Giants of Norse myth. Instead of reindeer, this Santa Claus is accompanied by wolves. Yet, Mora and Morrison don’t just play with the idea of a magical Santa. He is also steeped in technology, riding a sleigh that looks like it is part space ship and occasionally fighting aliens.

Klaus: the New Adventures of Santa Claus occurs in two narratives – “Klaus and the Witch of Winter” and “Klaus and the Crisis in Xmasville”. Klaus’ encounter with the Witch of Winter involves a battle against forces of cold with hints of The Snow Queen (especially through the notion of children developing a frozen heart), but the tale also connects Klaus to other tales, making this Santa Claus the teacher of Geppetto (from the tale of Pinocchio). This tale brings up concerns about global warming, ideas of family, and the psychological trauma that children undergo.

“Klaus and the Crisis in Xmasville” is similarly charged with magic and political commentary. In this story, Morrison and Mora explore the influence of Coca Cola in shaping the image of modern Santa Claus and his capitalist trappings. Using the name “Pola Cola”, Morrison and Mora point out things like the exploitation of workers and the power of economy to turn people into zombie-like figures, but they also combine this with Klaus’ battle against a werewolf-like figure and aliens from another planet who are trying to suck all of the creativity out of human beings because they don’t have any of their own.

Morrison and Mora have created a new mythology with Klaus, modifying the traditional image of Santa Claus and combining him with another creation of popular culture – the superhero.

To find out more about Grant Morrison, go to https://www.grantmorrison.com

To discover more about Klaus, go to https://shop.boom-studios.com/series/detail/458/klaus

Not Grimm… But Grim

Not Grimm… But Grim

A review of Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth (Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

When I first read the fairy tales recorded by Bavarian folklore collector  Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, the tales seemed whimsically short and light even though many of the tales featured the grim characteristics of fairy tales like abuse, murder, violence, hunger, and torture. This underscores the power of translation and the influence that it has on the way we read folk narratives. Simple things like word choice, tone, or presentation on the page can shift our readings of fairy tales.

When I encountered Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, my reading of von Schonwerth’s tales changed drastically, and I attribute the way the stories were read in this collection with that shift. The tales suddenly took on darker tones, words stood out like blood, witch, wolf, hunt, strangled, and death. Despite the way that words suddenly spoke themselves suffused with melancholy and anger, it wasn’t Tanaka’s translation alone that triggered the shift in reading. Rather, it was the magical binding of Tanaka’s words to Dawson’s art. Dawson’s illustrations of the tales were able to play with the intrusion of the inhuman into the human world, underscoring the threatening potential of these tales. She evoked a beauty tinged with tragedy in her art, interweaving flowers with bodies and blood.

Text is scattered across Dawson’s images, which gives them a weighty presence in the narrative, making them part of the story rather than a side note, addendum, or marginalia. Dawson is able to pull words out of Tanaka’s translation to emphasize parts of the tale that the reader might disregard.

Dawson’s art incorporates aspects of folk art, giving the work a timeless quality, and reminding the reader that this is folklore in motion – always shifting and changing, but maintaining its roots.

Although Tanaka and Dawson don’t use all of von Schonwerth’s tales, they create a representative sample, a tasting of the folklore that von Schonwerth was able to collect. By incorporating the visual with the textual, Tanaka and Dawson are able to capture some of the multivocality and mutability of fairy tales, highlighting the way that fairy tales can take on new meanings through their contexts.

to find out more about White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, go to https://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/546931/white-milk-red-blood#9780345812186

To discover more about Willow Dawson, go to https://www.willowdawson.com

to discover more about Shelley Tanaka, go to https://www.writersunion.ca/member/shelley-tanaka

Telling Silences

Telling Silences

Telling Silences

A review of Margaret Yocom KIN S FUR (Deerbrook Editions, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Margaret Yocom was the person who first introduced me to erasure poetry, so I am extremely excited that her erasure poem KIN S FUR has been published. KIN S FUR transforms the fairy tale All Kinds of Fur, revealing the voice of the daughter between the lines, in that interstitial space where ideas are formed. Yocom sorts through words, sifting them until she finds the silenced voice within the fairy tale.

Fairy tales have power and part of their power is their ability to adapt, to transform, to shift and change, and Yocom combines the metamorphosing power of these tales with the transformative quality of erasure poetry. Yocom searches through the fairy tale All Kinds of Fur to find what is left unspoken and devoiced and she finds that voice at the margins, hidden within the words fo the fairy tale and pulls these words to the surface, casting her own spell of discovery over the text.

Yocom brings up the voices of women, highlighting words like wife, daughter, mother, she, and her, focussing the reader’s attention on the role of women and their significance to fairy tales (even ones like All Kinds of Fur where female characters remain unspoken). Yocom proves that even the seemingly silent speaks and that sometimes the oppressed speak their strongest through silence.

To discover more about Margaret Yocom, visit https://margaretyocom.com

To find out more about KIN S FUR, visit http://www.deerbrookeditions.com/kin-s-fur/

Saved From The Music

Saved From The Music

Saved from the Music

A review of Jay Asher and Jessica Freeburg’s Piper (Penguin Random House, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Fairy tales have frequently invoked disability, often using the disabled body as a motivating point for stories of change and transformation. Jay Asher and Jessica Freeburg’s graphic novel Piper explores the question of what would happen if the Pied Piper of Hamelin encountered a young woman who is Deaf and therefore couldn’t hear the allure of his magical pipe. Maggie, a young Deaf woman who has been ostracised by her village, becomes a foil for the Pied Piper, a person who has a strength that counters that of the Pied Piper. She has the ability to resist control because of being Deaf.

Maggie became Deaf when children put her in a barrel when she was a child and throughout her life she experienced ostracism and violence from the rest of her community. When the Piper arrives in her town, the first thing he notices is the prevalence of violence and oppression in the community and the power that those in positions of authority or wealth exert over the rest of the community. He notices that the town has a rat infestation, which is has the ability to counter with his ability to summon rats with his pipe, but he also reads the imbalance of power in the town and wants vengeance for those who are attacked by the community. His own father died as a result of violence from a community that ostracized him and this has left the Piper aware of the violence that ostracism can visit on those who don’t conform.

Asher and Freeburg give us a modified version of the tale, giving further context to why the Piper eventually lures all of the children away from the village beyond the fact that the town doesn’t pay him for removing all of the rats.

The tale evokes disability again when the kidnapping of the village’s children is discovered after a disabled child is unable to keep up with the rest of the children and therefore escapes the Piper’s abduction, therefore situating this tale as one that uses disability and Deafness as symbolic media within the context of the tale, associating bodily difference as a way to demonstrate the town of Hamelin’s abuse toward disempowered groups.

This is also a fairy tale within a fairy tale since Maggie creates stories about those who have been violent toward her. She shifts the narratives that are imposed on her and remakes herself into a position of power by retelling her experiences as fairy tales. Ultimately, she shifts the tale of the Piper of Hamelin, her own tale, in order to modify it, remaking the story into the one that is familiar from legend and obscuring the reality of the tale.

To find out more about Piper, visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/539282/piper-by-jay-asher-and-jessica-freeburg-illustrated-by-jeff-stokely/9780448493664/

Slavic Myths and Human Monsters

Check out my review of David Demchuk’s “The Bone Mother” originally posted on my other site Speculating Canada. Demchuk’s novel features fairy tales turned dark, highlighting the freakery embodied in folklore

Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy

A review of David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother (ChiZine, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother brings together snippets of strange lives into a tale that hints at connections between these individual stories and provides shadows of a larger narrative tying them together. Each of Demchuk’s tales ties in with a snapshot shown at the beginning of the story and diverts into the mythical, magical, mysterious, and monstrous. These images of the normal are interrupted by tales that Other them, transforming them into something complex and uncertain. The unexpected is a stream that runs through Demchuk’s narratives, complicating them to illustrate the way that stories always hold complex truths that are always part fiction.

The Bone Mother features fairy tales turned dark and infused with the mechanical, featuring an ever present factory standing as a symbol of industry intersecting with myth to create a landscape of smoke and…

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Island Resistance

Island Resistance

Island Resistance

A Review of Melissa de la Cruz’ “The Isle of the Lost” (Disney Enterprises Inc, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Although The Isle of the Lost is part of Walt Disney Studios’ Descendants franchise, there are elements of the book that allow for a counter-hegemonic readings. De La Cruz highlights the potential dangers of a kingdom that pushes its particular brand of “good” on everyone and exiles anyone who is against the norm to an island prison.

The Descendants franchise focusses on the children of the Disney villains, particularly emphasizing characters Mal (daughter of Maleficent), Evie (daughter of the Evil Queen), Jay (son of Jafar), and Carlos (son of Cruella De Vil). In the franchise, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast has united all of the different Disney movie kingdoms into one united community and all of them have exiled their villains to an island called The Isle of the Lost, where not only are the villains imprisoned, but also their children. The Descendants film portrayed Ben, the son of Beauty and the Beast deciding that he wanted to allow Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos to come to the exclusive prep school for all of the royalty of the Disney films. They are separated from all of the other children on the island who are left there still and they are taken to Auradon Prep where they eventually decide to become good.

Melissa de la Cruz’ The Isle of the Lost is a prequel to the Descendants film portraying the lives of the characters on the Isle of the Lost before Ben brings them to Auradon. The novel features Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos trying to live up to their parents’ expectations, always feeling like failures in the eyes of their parents for not being able to live up to the evil destinies their parents want for them. The novel centralizes ideas of isolation in families, illustrating characters who feel so trapped in their destinies that they can’t connect with others. Even Ben is unable to escape from his destiny to be king, which has trapped him in a narrative that makes him believe that he needs to be exactly like his father, the Beast.

While Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos question their narrative of evil, they also critique the actions of the “good” community of Auradon, pointing out the issues with the control enforced from this mainland community. Auradon forces the residents of the island to watch propaganda as their only TV channel, constantly being bombarded with images of how good things are in Auradon and how terrible it is not to have the privileges of Auradon. The island only receives the garbage from Auradon to survive off of, living on the remains and waste of the mainland. This narrative allows for an Island Studies reading, portraying an island as a place dependent upon a mainland while also locked into a constant pattern of similitude. The mainland also exerts its power over the island as a dependent, pushing their narrative onto island culture. But the island also exerts its counter narrative, resisting mainland control and making its own narrative.

The island narrative is paralleled with the narrative of youth. Youth, like the Island of the Lost are portrayed as resisting the control of a larger power structure (in this case, their parents and ideas of destiny). The island is also codified as loneliness and the youth are portrayed as relating to each other through a shared loneliness, an isolation that comes from the notion that islands are lonely places. Characters and the island both resist hegemonic power imposed from without, resisting not just exertion of power, but also resisting the writing of a narrative over their own destiny.

Readers are given a glimpse into the power structures of the mainland when given flashes of Ben trying to rule and perpetuating the union-busting of his father (upon the former sidekick figures). Readers are able to see that “good” is controlled by a central authority that puts certain people with certain pasts into positions of power. Magic is strongly discouraged in Auradon, meaning that they have had to shift a lot of cultural expectations and their lifestyles.

The Isle of the Lost is a narrative of change and resistance, a counter-hegemonic voice for Disney’s far to easy binary of good/evil.

To discover more about Melissa de la Cruz, visit http://melissa-delacruz.com .

To find out more about The Isle of the Lost, visit http://books.disney.com/book/the-isle-of-the-lost/

Prophetic Stories or Spells of Destiny?

Prophetic Stories or Spells of Destiny?

A review of Mistress of All Evil: A Tale of the Dark Fairy by Serena Valentino (Disney Press, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

With Mistress of All Evil: A Tale of the Dark Fairy, Serena Valentino once again adds moral complexity to a Disney villain, providing a backstory that allows the reader to see how her choices were made. Mistress of All Evil examines one of my favourite Disney villains, Maleficent, the villain from Sleeping Beauty. Rather than turning Maleficent into a hero as the film Maleficent did, Valentino makes her a villain with a complicated morality and provides more context for why Maleficent feels justified in her actions.

 

Valentino’s Maleficent is a character whose life has been shaped by loneliness, isolation, and rejection… and along with all of that, a fuse that, once lit, causes her to lose control. Although this Maleficent was born in the fairy realm, she was born from a tree covered in ravens and rather than having wings, she was born with horns. She was rejected by the fairy community and teased for her difference. Even the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella and the three “good fairies” from Sleeping Beauty have sought to reject and isolate her from the rest of fairy kind. Maleficent buries herself in books and accepts her isolation until she discovers Nanny, a figure that has appeared in all of the other Valentino Disney books. Nanny gives Maleficent a sense of belonging and a sense of family, but like most things in Maleficent’s life, this sense of comfort is short lasting and she loses her connection to Nanny for many years as Nanny loses her memory and Maleficent thinks she is dead.

 

Valentino constructs a meta narrative about storytelling, linking tales to ideas of fate and toying with the idea that Maleficent’s story has already been written. Snow White discovers a fairy tale book that already has Maleficent and Aurora’s tale written down and characters start to wonder whether the book is a prophetic book or whether it is a spell, locking characters into a narrative that was written to control them.

 

Like most of Valentino’s book, every character thinks that they are doing the right thing, believing that they are making things better for others and protecting others from terrible truths, but, of course, secrets and lies are dangerous in fairy tales and they always have consequences.

 

Mistress of All Evil: A Tale of the Dark Fairy, although written for young adults, is a complex exploration of fairy tales and ideas of tradition, challenging ideas of the simple Disney narrative and the easy morality of fairy tales for children and providing an engagement with ideas of “best intentions” to explore how even people who think that they are doing the right thing can end up harming others.

 

To discover more about Serena Valentino, visit http://www.serenavalentino.com

 

To find out more about Mistress of All Evil: A Tale of the Dark Fairy, visit http://books.disney.com/book/mistress-of-all-evil/