A review of Jen Calonita’s “Flunked” (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille
What would we do with fairy tales if they didn’t have villains? Fairy Tale villains are so delightfully exciting and they inject that needed bit of challenge and excitement into a tale. They have so much potential for complexity and depth. Jen Calonita’s “Flunked” is a tale that brings together fairy tale villains from narratives like Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Red Ridinghood, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel in a tale of redemption and relapse into villainy.
When Cinderella’s evil stepmother Flora recognized that she was living in a society that rejected her for her villainous path, she sought to redeem herself in the eyes of her fellow citizens by creating a school devoted to the reformation of villains and those who show signs of wandering toward villainous paths. She created the Fairy Tale Reform School, devoted to turning villains into heroes and giving them the skills that would allow them to be successful. Employing the Evil Queen from Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf from Red Ridinghood, and the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid, this school is a rogues gallery of fairy tale villains and it makes for an interesting, if terrifying, experience.
Gilly has had to become a thief in order to keep her family fed since Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother started wholesale manufacturing the glass slippers that Gilly’s father invented and the boot-maker became poor, barely able to keep his family fed and their boot home safe and cozy. But, when Gilly gets caught stealing to provide for her family her parents and the police in their fairy tale community send her to Fairy Tale Reform School to find out how to be a hero and what she finds there are mysteries, friendship, her own desire to make the world a better place… and a lot of near-death experiences.
Even though Calonita’s “Flunked” is a fun and playful story, it is also filled with social questions and critiques. Calonita raises questions about poverty and social inequality, illustrating what Gilly has to do in order to keep her family fed and raising questions about the morality of theft. She creates a connection to figures like Robin Hood by portraying Gilly stealing from the wealthy to provide for her family.
Calonita uses the figure of the princess and the almost-worship they receive in order to ask questions about celebrity culture and ponder why so many people envy the wealthy and popular even when their policies may hurt those who are impoverished. Yet Calonita also questions social stigma and abjection, exploring the way that those who have been judged to be villainous have to constantly strive to escape from the stigma attached to them. The creation of the Fairy Tale Reform School is as much about finding a safe space for former villains as it is about creating a space where people can acquire new skills and find the hero within them. With a Sea Witch who keeps forgetting everything she is doing and a spell to erase memory, the theme of erasing the past is a key one in “Flunked”, pointing to the way that one’s history continues to haunt one. Calonita asks questions about the boundary between hero and villain and challenges the easy morality of most fairy tales by complicating her characters.
Gilly is uniquely suited to solving the world’s issues because she recognizes that villains have unique skills that others don’t and that sometimes a villain has to do what a hero isn’t capable of doing.
To find out more about “Flunked”, and discover more about Jen Calonita, visit http://www.jencalonitaonline.com/MG_Flunked.html