This autumn, Tamarind published Jamila Gavin’s Blackberry Blue: a collection of six magical fairytales featuring a diverse cast of multicultural heroes and heroines. It has got us thinking a lot about storytelling and the role it plays in preserving cultural heritage. We asked some of our authors to tell us about the stories they enjoyed as children . . . Here’s what Ann Cameron, author of the Julian and Huey series had to say.
My Swedish grandfather lived with my family from the time I was born. He saved my life when I was a baby. One night it rained and the roof of the house got a leak that soaked the heavy plaster of the ceiling over my bed. Suddenly, the ceiling fell right onto my bed, with enough weight to crush me to death. But luckily for me, I wasn’t in bed that night. For some reason my grandpa – who never got me up at night – had taken me downstairs to play. I don’t remember the day the ceiling fell in, but I know that I was safe, held in his arms.
My grandpa was a blacksmith and had a forge where he hammered all kinds of useful things out of red-hot iron. He had his blacksmith shop on our land and we called it the ‘monkey house’ because he monkeyed around there, inventing and making things. I loved to spend time with him in the monkey house, with its smell of tools and fire and its cabinet with many tiny drawers full of bolts and screws and different size nails. Because I was very young, I never understood why there were no monkeys in the monkey house. I kept hoping that one day the monkeys would show up.
My grandpa told me stories about trolls and also about gremlins. When things in our house went astray, he said that gremlins had taken them. I thought the gremlins had carried them away down under the grating of the heat vent into the mysterious dark place below it that led down to the coal furnace in the basement. I didn’t know how tall gremlins were, but I imagined them about a foot high, moving around our house in the night while we slept. It seemed that in our house the lost things, especially buttons, disappeared and were never to be found again – proof that gremlins were real. As I grew up, I rarely wondered where the lost things had gone, because I was quite certain they were never coming back. To this day when something disappears, I remember my grandpa, say to myself, ‘Oh, it’s the gremlins again!’ and wait a good while before I start to look for it.
Although I was born in the United States, I have spent many years living in Panajachel, Guatemala. Just like the tales of the Brothers Grimm, some of the stories from the Cakchiquel Mayan tradition can seem quite violent; there’s one like ‘Hansel and Gretel’ but instead of a witch, there’s a big tree in the mountains which takes compassion on them and opens up so they can hide inside it to escape a lion. Then the two siblings live together in the mountains for years where they grow their food and the brother makes friends with a dog. They meet strange people deeper in the mountains, some of whom plan to eat them! But then Gretel falls in love with one of the men of the place and turns on her brother; she wants to kill Hansel, because he doesn’t like her new boyfriend. Hansel’s dog saves him from poisoned food the strange people want to feed him. Hansel knows about the poison because the dog is his food tester – what the dog won’t touch, Hansel knows is poisoned and won’t eat. The story comes to a climax when at a dance, Gretel and her boyfriend want to push Hansel into a concealed deep pit with a fire at the bottom. Hansel notices the pit, and pushes his sister and the boyfriend into it, where they burn to death. Hansel cries because he had loved his sister. From there on, it’s happily ever after.
Another story concerns a two-headed eagle that carries away children and even adults who go to the fields to plant corn – and eats them. To escape it, one family carries a giant hollow gourd to the fields so they can hide in it when they heard the eagle’s cry. Every day, the eagle lands on the gourd and claws at it, but the gourd is so strong and smooth, the eagle can’t break it open. But one day the father of the family forgets the gourd – and the eagle flies away with them all to carry them to his nest and eat them. When it sets them down in its nest, the father takes out a small machete. With it, he fights the eagle and chops it to bits, and no one ever has to be afraid to plant their fields with corn after that.
Our intern Joe considers the European fairytale tradition . . .
Jacob and Wilhem Grimm didn’t live in a vacuum. They were politically aware academics collecting stories (often from the upper and middle classes) in the brief decades between The Enlightenment and German unification. They lived in a unique place and time within the evolution of European society. And yet, the stories they collected have been retold and beloved at least in part because they cover subjects of such authentic humanity as to make the tales seem timeless.
In Blackberry Blue, and other fairy tales, Jamila Gavin offers six brand-new stories inspired by the tales of the Grimms as well as Hans Christian Anderson, but updates this tradition to reflect our ethnically diverse population. On the surface of it, this collection is for girls and boys who have ever fallen down and noticed the ‘flesh-coloured’ sticking plaster doesn’t quite match or wondered why Father Christmas doesn’t look like their father but, as we learn in Gavin’s tales, appearances deceive. With stunningly beautiful (truly stunning) illustrations, these tales speak to the same authentically human power as what we have from the Grimms because Gavin, like Europe itself, has invited a wider audience to join.
In the 45 years between their first and final editions, the Grimms added and edited and altered their collection. Society was changing, the Grimms were changing, and so their stories changed. They were not the first to tell most of their stories and, two centuries on, we continue to add to and edit and alter the pantheon of European faery tales. With Blackberry Blue, Gavin gives us the next incarnation of this long and ever-evolving tradition.