Today, Literary Escapism is excited to take part in the Two and Twenty Dark Tales: Dark Retellings of Mother Goose Rhymes blog tour.
In this anthology, 20 authors explore the dark and hidden meanings behind some of the most beloved Mother Goose nursery rhymes through short story retellings. The dark twists on classic tales range from exploring whether Jack truly fell or if Jill pushed him instead to why Humpty Dumpty, fragile and alone, sat atop so high of a wall. Two and Twenty Dark Tales features some of today’s most admired young adult authors, including: Michelle Zink, Lisa Mantchev, Sarwat Chadda, Nina Berry, Leigh Fallon, Suzanne Young, C. Lee McKenzie, Angie Frazier, Jessie Harrell, Gretchen McNeil, KM Walton, Heidi R. Kling, Nancy Holder, Karen Mahoney, Suzanne Lazear, Pamela van Hylckama Vlieg, Shannon Delany with Max Scialdone, Leah Cypess, Sayantani DasGupta, and Georgia McBride.
Make sure you stick around to the end. We’ll be giving away an ecopy of Francisco X. Stork’s Irises.
For LE’s stop on the Two and Twenty Dark Tales Blog tour, I wanted to do something a little different than have one of the many authors do an interview or guest post. Instead I asked all of the authors one question and you should see what they said.
What was it about your Mother Goose rhyme that made you want to retell it in such a dark fashion? Was there a different rhyme that equally inspired you?
I’m terrified of spiders, and hoped humanizing them would help me conquer that fear. It didn’t work, but I haven’t killed a spider since. For the anthology, I wrote about Humpty Dumpty as well, so I didn’t have to choose. Me=lucky.
I was the winner of the YA LIT Chat contest – so my mother goose rhyme (Little Boy Blue) was chosen for me.
This is how my process went: I kept mulling over the word “Blue” and thought of the Joni Mitchell Song Blue:
Blue, songs are like tattoos/…/Ink on a pin/Underneath the skin/An empty space to fill in
And so I started thinking about tatoos, ink, how we mark ourselves. In my day job I’m a professor of Narrative Medicine at Columbia, so I think a lot about the power of stories and how stories work for human beings, for communities, and in thinking more about why Mother Goose Rhymes are so powerful, why they stay with us, why they seem to have seeped into the very air we breathe and the atmosphere we live in, I remembered this line from “As You Like It” (I had just seen the Royal Shakespeare Company perform it in NYC that past summer):
And this our life, exempt from public haunt/ Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, /Sermons in stones
And then I was off and running with Little Boy Blue – a retelling that incorporates a race of creatures whose job it is to invisibly inscribe human beings’ bodies with our fables, folktales, nursery rhymes – our old stories that seem in fact sewn into our very skin, our bones…
I didn’t pick ‘Sing a Song of Six Pence’, Georgia did! It was actually for the best, it forced me to try something new, rather than pick a rhyme that matched my pre-existing ideas about a story. I was great fun, and refreshing, to go somewhere completely different and write a pure fantasy setting.
I was inspired by “The Girl and the Birds” largely because I loved the title. I’d never read it before, I had the suspicion that most of the anthology’s readers would be newcomers to that rhyme as well, and I felt I could bring something very different to the table with it. I’d already decided that my portion of the advance would be donated to my local Humane Society, so the fact that my main character communicates with animals also seemed to be an appropriate choice. The story went dark very quickly, not only because of the setting suggested by the rhyme but because I feel like we, as a society, are failing those who need us most right now: the young, the old, the sick, and the animals.
“The Clock” was the first rhyme that caught my eye. There’s something so creepy about it, especially the last line which, to me, is extremely menacing. “To do what is right.” It reads like a brainwashing mantra from a cult! So I ran with that concept – a seemingly innocuous children’s rhyme with a sinister undertone – in my story about a babysitting assignment gone horribly, horribly wrong.
I knew from the minute I was asked to be part of the anthology that I would be doing a retelling of Wee Willie Winkie. In fact, I replied immediately to snag my rhyme of choice. Wee Willie Winkie for me, was always a dark and twisted story. Imagine, a weird guy in his jammies looking though key holes at kids and crying through the locks in their doors! From a very young age, I could never accept that this was an innocent pastime, there was an erie undertone to the words, so I just had to explore it further.
For me, Wee Willie Winkie screamed to be retold, and to be honest, no other rhyme spoke to me equally. However, if I had to pick another, I’d have gone for Sing a song of six pence. There are elements of rank, bitterness, and tiered society in that rhyme that I’d have had fun with.
I was assigned Hey Diddle Diddle and I knew I had to make it dark for the anthology. When I sat down to write it, I thought, “What am I going to do with a fiddle playing cat, laughing dog and a moon jumping cow?”. When I figured out that the ancient Egyptians had gods all based around these animals, and all of the gods had some sort of function in the afterlife, the darkness came by itself.
C. Lee McKenzie
Winkin’, Blinkin’, and Nod/Into The Sea of Dew
I loved the language in this rhyme. Phrases like “nets of silver and gold, that misty sea, of crystal light and–of course–into the sea of dew were so beautiful. I wanted to weave some of that into the tale, so that while my version of the story would be dark, the language wouldn’t be. I also have always been charmed by the idea of the three fishermen tucked inside a wooden shoe that becomes the baby’s trundle bed, rocking him gently while he dreams.
Humpty Dumpty always fascinated me when I was little. I felt so sorry when Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put together again. Then later when I found out this was a political satire poking fun at either King Richard III or perhaps Cardinal Wolsey that charmed me. This rhyme was my second choice to turn into a dark tale.
Heidi R. Kling
As a child, “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” both horrified and fascinated me. Why did she have so many children in the first place? What made her so frustrated and angry that she would beat her innocent children before bed? Why did she live in a shoe? It was such a treat to answer those questions (and play on words like “shoe”) in my dystopian update of the original rhyme.
When Georgia offered me a spot in the anthology I immediately went for the retelling of Jack and Jill. The question of “what if Jill pushed her brother Jack down that hill?” popped into my head and wouldn’t leave me alone. The story I wrote and submitted percolated from there.
I first read “Taffy Was a Thief” in an old book of Oxford Nursery Rhymes my father got me when I was three. I stil have the book, and you can see that I circled the word Taffy in crayon. I think that name, which conjured up images of sweetness and candy, combined with and the ugliness and intrigue of thieving was what grabbed me as a kid. Even though it’s one of the more obscure Mother Goose rhymes, it’s the first one that came to mind when the idea for this anthology was sent to me. Then I did some research and found out the historians believe “Taffy” was based on a cryptic Welsh myth about a God of the Harvest named Amaethon (changed to a more child-friendly “Taffy”) who stole a bird, a dog, and a deer from the King of the Otherworld. When I heard that, my brain went into overdrive and I had to write about it. If I hadn’t found that information about Taffy, I would have written about Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary because that rhyme’s about “Bloody” Mary Tudor, and torture, which would be great dark fun to write about.
Pam Van Hylckama Vlieg
A lot of people think Ring Around the Rosy is about the black plague, that is a common misconception. The rhyme is much newer than that, I did look at current folklore theory on what it could have been based on but didn’t find anything that tickled my fancy. I actually wrote this story three times, once as a plague, once as a dystopian futuristic plague, and then the way it is now… a boy waking up with blood on his hands and the rhyme translated in the most literal sense.
We have a CD in our car called “Silly Songs.” One of the songs is Hickory Dickory Dock. It is my oldest daughter’s favorite song. For a while, she demanded that I play it every time we were in the car. And then replay it when it was done. Over and over and over. The second I got the email from Georgia inviting me to contribute to the anthology, I thought of how satisfying it would be to write a dark retelling of Hickory Dickory Dock. And, well, it was.
“The Itsy Bitsy Spider” was the only other rhyme I considered. That’s my younger daughter’s favorite song…
I’ve been fascinated by “How Many Miles to Babylon” for some time and I’ve found several versions of the poem. One of my favorite books as a child was Jean Slaughter Doty’s “Can I get there by Candlelight?” In her case, Candlelight is a horse, but there are so many things “candlelight” could be and so many possibilities for where (and what) “there” (and Babylon) could be. I’m also fascinated by the poem “Pixies in the Wood” which I reference (under an alternate title) in INNOCENT DARKNESS.
I chose A Bunch of Blue Ribbons because I’m a very visual person, and there was something about the image of silky blue ribbons that struck a dark, almost sensual, chord. Ruby’s story came to me almost immediately thereafter.
It was the image of children going out to play by the light of the moon that struck me as deeply unsettling. What parent would allow their child to go out to play at night? What if the children were afraid, but had no choice but to go out? And what if their parents could do nothing to help them? I thought of evil witches, a forest nobody dared enter, and a Welsh seaside village setting, and from there, the retelling carved its own path. There were a lot of rhymes to choose from, but I wanted to choose a rhyme that wasn’t well known. When I saw the title Boys and Girls Come Out to Play, it sounded like a creepy beckoning. Right from the start I knew it was the one I wanted to work with.
Sleep, Baby, Sleep wasn’t my original choice of Mother Goose rhyme to retell (there are quite a few others that are terrifically creepy–as you’ll see in TWO AND TWENTY). Sleep, Baby, Sleep was what co-writer Max Scialdone and I used in Pieces of Eight because, as a lullaby, it feels distinctly like a mother urging her child to sleep and feel safe–no matter what’s lurking nearby.
I did a lot of research about my nursery rhyme and discovered that it was about King James I of England (and VI of Scotland), which I didn’t know before I chose the nursery rhyme. I was really excited about that because my coauthor, Debbie Viguié, and I had written about him in our WICKED series–we set one of our scenes during the storm that nearly drowned him and his new bride when they were returning to Scotland from Denmark. He became convinced that witches had worked magic spells to cause the storm that nearly capside their vessel, and he became a merciless witch hunter. He personally interrogated witches and saw to it that they were executed. He wrote a book titled Demonology.
This was the same King James for which the King James Bible is named. He oversaw the translation. This is how my coauthor knew him; she is quite devout and the idea that the man responsible for the beautiful King James Bible had persecuted witches distressed her. She asked me to give him “some light” and that’s why the story begins in terrible darkness and ends with a miracle.
I chose my nursery rhyme based solely on the title and I’m so glad I did! It was the one for me.
“When I was a kid I would recite Star Light, Star Bright all the time. I’m not sure why, but I used to wish on everything! Stars, birthday candles, balls of paper making it into the trashcan. So when picking a Mother Goose rhyme, I almost immediately jumped to that one. It seemed so natural to build a story around it. And I’ve always been fascinated by the idea (now that I’m an adult) of being careful what you wish for. Because taken literally it can almost always be a curse.
THE WISH is about girl who wished upon a star, not really considering the consequences, and the whirlwind night that made her change her mind—even if it was too late.”
I chose ‘One for Sorrow’ because it’s a rhyme that often plays through my mind when I see magpies. In the UK the words tend to apply to magpies, whereas in the US it is more about crows. I went with crows for my story because they’ve always seemed such magical birds to me, holding onto secrets – and not necessarily good ones. And then there are ravens… with shades of Edgar Allan Poe. Clearly, I’ve got a thing about corvids! I wanted to tell a story about transformation – from “sorrow to joy” – but I wanted the ending to be unexpected.
Thank you everyone for taking the time to stop by Literary Escapism!
The publisher, Month9 Books, is giving away an ecopy of Francisco X. Stork’s Irises. To enter, all you have to do is answer this one question: Which Mother Goose rhyme would you want to see retold? Do you have a favorite? Remember, you must answer the question in order to be entered.
Even though I’m not giving the additional entries any more, you can still help support the author by sharing their article, and this contest, on your blog, Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere you can. After all, the more people who are aware of this fabulous author ensures we get more fabulous stories.
The winner must post a review of the novel someplace. Whether it is on their own blog, Amazon, GoodReads, LibraryThing or wherever, it doesn’t matter. Just help get the word out.
The contest will stay open until October 31st at which time I’ll determine the winner with help from this snazzy plug-in that I have.