Features / 8 October, 2018 / My Baba

Author Jessie Burton On Modern Fairytales & How To Write A Children’s Novel

Jessie Burton is a best-selling author. Her debut novel The Miniaturist and second book The Muse have both been translated into over 35 languages. Last year, the writer was approached by Bloomsbury to write a children’s book, or moreover, re-write a fairytale. “I had long since wanted to write a children’s story so … I knew just which one I wanted to revisit and revitalise,” she told us. Fast-forward to September 2018 and Burton has released her retelling of the Brothers Grimm’s Twelve Dancing Princesses, titled The Restless Girls.

Burton loved the glamour and magic of the Twelve Dancing Princesses as a little girl: “I remembered the dancing, the sisterhood and the secrecy of the original tale.” The story goes that twelve sisters are locked in their room at night by their father, yet each morning their shoes are in tatters. Their father, the king, issues a reward for whomever can solve the mystery of the shoes. However Burton’s “memory skimmed over the ending in which a man who stalks the girls and reports on them to their father is rewarded with one of the princesses to marry,” she explained. Disappointed by the final page, Jessie knew this was the fairytale she had to re-write for the modern reader. We had the chance to ask Jessie about her new release, the writing process and for some advice for anyone aspiring to write a children’s novel.

What is the importance of fairytales for children today?

I think that what we remember of fairytales is the unbridled joy that they give us as children – the magic, glamour and delight we feel when we discover a new realm. So many parents I know tell me their children can’t get enough of fairytales – but they want to shrivel up and die as the final page turns and another prince comes to the rescue. We change the end! they tell me. So I wanted to create a fairytale that keeps the magic and the wonder of the original but combines it with characters who think and act like modern day people.

How far has your version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses been adapted from the original? Can you talk us through any big changes and why?

It was essential to me to keep the glamour, the fun and the rebellion that I was drawn to as a young reader. I sought to twist the perspective, so we might see the world through the girls’ eyes, not those of the sneaking soldier and demanding king.

The biggest and most important change for me was to reconfigure the princesses in the story – to give them names, talents and personalities. I wanted to make them human. Yes, they’re good at lots of things but sometimes they get blue and scared. I looked at whether it’s really that wonderful living in a palace, after all. They have to overcome obstacles, showing their mettle in order to get to a secret world full of golden foxes and toucan waiters. Crucially, I wanted agency to be in the hands of the girls – so that no one can “save” them in the end; they have to do that for themselves.

It was also very important to me to give their father, the king, a reason for his over-protectiveness, I wanted to show that no one is wholly good or evil – that we all contain dark and light.

How do you hope the book will be received? What message is it sending to children?

Now that the book is out in the world it’s been so gratifying to see children responding to it. I love how they’re enjoying the glamour and the secrecy of it, just like I did – but also that they’re happy to see girls taking centre stage, and how much they love the idea of the king being tricked by his daughters.

The message that it’s sending to children is that a princess can be smart, kind and thoughtful as well as resourceful. She can be more in control of her own destiny than she might think. Most of all I hope they absorb it and grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal for girls’ voices to be heard, and their talents appreciated.


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What’s the biggest challenge in writing a children’s book rather than an adult’s?

I didn’t really find any differences in writing for children. For children or adults what you’re looking for is a good story! I still needed to think of a set of characters, a setting, a message and a theme. The main difference was the length – my books for adults are normally five times longer than The Restless Girls – so getting a lot of action in to a short time frame was important. I wrote the first draft in two weeks and it was a rush of pleasure and excitement. I tried to picture myself again as a nine-year old and what I would love to read about. Detail is so important in a children’s books so it was really fun to dream up what the world of The Restless Girls would look like, what challenges they would face and what would happen to them.

Where do you write? Can you describe your writing space?

I write in a shed at the bottom of my garden. I’ve filled the space with items and artefacts I love. I’ve got lots of postcards, pictures and portraits of women who I find inspiring – Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Frida Kahlo. There are bits and pieces I’ve found from around the world – a weird cat from Mexico by way of a charity shop in Rye, some coral – it’s definitely not minimalist, it’s cosy and kitsch and full of inspiration.

What advice can you offer anyone aspiring to write a children’s novel?

If you want to ‘be’ a writer, you have to write. On a piece of paper, on a laptop, on the back of your hand: it’s that simple. It’s not a state of ‘being’, it’s a state of doing. And doing quite a lot of it, at the expense of quite a lot of other things. If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Read widely, read for love, read for analysis, read to be disgusted, read to be delighted. It is not as romantic a job as you might think, but it is certainly a rewarding one. You have to be determined, bloody-minded yet highly sensitive, willing to take knockback after knockback, cheerful in the face of daily misery, and happy with your own company. I’ve written more about this on my website.

Finally, tell us about your favourite books as a child and why.

First and foremost I loved Roald Dahl – Matilda, The Witches, The Twits, and George’s Marvellous Medicine. I had a poster of him on my door!! He was a huge influence on me. I was a huge fan of Shirley Hughes and also Janet and Alan Ahlberg. I loved the idea of fantasy lands, like in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe -pushing open the wardrobe and discovering a new realm.

Jessie will be speaking at The Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival which takes place 5-14 October 2018. Find out more at CheltenhamFestivals.com

The Restless Girls is available now on Bloombury.co.uk

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