A collection of twelve dark, feminist retellings of traditional fairytales are given a witchy makeover, not for the faint-hearted, from one of Ireland’s leading writers for young people.
You make candles from stubs of other candles. You like light in your room to read. Gillian wants thick warm yellow fabric, soft as butter. Lila prefers cold. All icy blues. Their dresses made to measure. No expense spared. And dancing slippers. One night’s wear and out the door like ash. You can’t even borrow their cast-offs. You wear a pair of boots got from a child. Of sturdy stuff, that keeps the water out and gets you around.
Ash Pale was the first story that I wrote for this collection. I had gathered some old retellings of mine (of which only the woodcutter’s bride made the final…er…cut) together, but the image of Snow White as evil queen was the first voice that came into my head. The story started out with colours, which I think it appropriate for the story of a young woman whose name is one.
I thought of what her mother saw in the carriage. I thought of a purple starry sky. A blanket of white snow. The hidden powers of the earth and sky. This story was where the elemental themes of the collection began to take shape. I wrote a lot of it on the train to and from Sligo, seeing the landscape ribboning past. The mountains wild. The fields that we have tamed into regular human shapes. Sometimes with a single tree left clawing at the sky.
It was the winter when I wrote Ash Pale. But I first saw Karen’s response in summer. The princess as wicked queen, releasing her flame-poppet through a mirror. I took a beat. It wasn’t exactly the story I had told. The images were something new to me. A retelling of my retelling, I realised. And that was magic.
I love the simplicity of the black and white illustration comined with the intricacy of her detailed scenes. Each mirror has a different frame. Snow White’s costume has so many textures. Bear-pelt and dragon scales. Feathers for a crown, big enough to be from eagles, falcons. The dark pool of inky gown on the floor. Her predatory nature is communicated so beautifully.
And her face. The tender way she looks at her poppet, mixed with the cruel curve of her lips. The almost inquisitive turn of its head. As if it’s asking “What do I do now, Mom?”
It’s sinister and perfect and I love it. The privilege of having someone make art that responds to your art. Of seeing the shapes your words made in a brain- there’s a magic to that. The care and consideration that Karen put in to her work. The time. This book came from my heart and her illustrations came from hers. I’m so glad they get to compliment each other.
Ash Pale has a special place in my heart. It was the second piece I illustrated for Tangleweed and Brine and it made me believe that maybe I actually could illustrate an entire book. That the first illustration wasn’t simply a fluke. You could say I was a little bit anxious, not just about illustrating my first storybook but having my work to live up to Deirdre’s magnificent writing. No easy feat.
When I first read the story, I was struck by Snow White’s description of her mother as this tall, powerful, imposing figure and I pictured Snow White as every bit her mother’s daughter. I wanted her clothing to be as regal as you’d expect for a princess but to resemble something more like armor. Her true nature hidden in plain sight. I think she’d get a kick out of that.
I took the same approach with the mirrors, they’re not for looking in, they’re all portals to little nooks and crannies concealing her caches of spells, poppets and other witchy paraphernalia. I like the idea of people writing it off as a testament to Snow White’s vanity or love of pretty trinkets when it’s really a stockpile of weapons.
Initially drawn as a chunky, angular creature in my preliminary sketches, the golem/poppet took a bit of fiddling around with before I realised the more childlike it appeared the more ominous it became. The huge voids for eyes housed inside a tiny baby’s skull hint at its monstrous purpose.