If you find the dividing line between fairy tales and reality, let me know. In my mind, the two run together, even though the intersections aren’t always obvious. The girl sitting quietly in class or waiting for the bus or roaming the mall doesn’t want anyone to know, or doesn’t know how to tell anyone, that she is locked in a tower. Maybe she’s a prisoner of a story she’s heard all her life—that fairest means best, or that bruises prove she is worthy of love.I don’t know what I can say about Christine Heppermann’s Poisoned Apples: Poems For You, My Pretty that hasn’t already been covered in Anne Ursu’s brilliant essay “On Poisoned Apples, the ‘Great YA Debate’, and the Death of the Patriarchy”. She calls Heppermann’s collection “an unabashedly feminist look at girls, body image, and eating disorders told through the lens of fairy tales”, and then goes on to expertly link the book’s themes to wider cultural trends regarding the dismissal and erasure of stories for, by, or about girls and women. So before I go any further, allow me to urge you to read the essay: it gets it absolutely right.
But here’s a great thing about stories: they can be retold.
From the Author’s Note.
Ursu also reminds us that “girls are told in ways large and small that they are silly, that they do not matter, that their job is to become invisible. And so they become invisible”. Poisoned Apples is about how this happens, and how stories are one of the ways we can fight back. Through a series of fairy tale inspired poems, Heppermann interrogates how we construct femininity, and reassures readers that the stories we currently tell about what it means to be a girl or women are not fixed: they only seem that way because of how widespread they are. But we can make up new ones, one subversive retelling at a time.
The poems in Poisoned Apples are full of humour and bite, and also of fortifying fury and infinite compassion. The first thing that struck me was the fact that they were written with such care. This is a book that could be worn as protective armour: it offers the relief of pattern recognition by reminding girls everywhere that they’re neither broken nor alone; and then it gives readers the dizzying freedom that comes with imagining other stories, other endings, other possibilities for yourself.
For example, the poem “A Brief History of Feminism” lets the chilling implications of shrugging away the dehumanisation of girls that beings in the playground speak for themselves:
Simon says touch your toes.An undercurrent of anger at the position of powerlessness girls are placed in again and again permeates these poems, and you can hear it loud and clear line after line. The same is true of Heppermann’s biting wryness. Anne Sexton’s Transformations comes to mind, as well as Wendy Cope’s Family Values — which isn’t to say, of course, that Poisoned Apples is not very much its own thing.
Simon says turn around.
Simon says touch your toes again.
Now wiggle a little.
Simon says he is not a pervert.
Simon says hop on one foot.
Simon didn’t say stop hopping!
Simon says hop closer.
Simon says is that a push-up bra?
Geez, honey, calm down.
Simon says calm down.
On second thought,
Simon says you’re pretty cute
when you’re all worked up like that.
Wanna hop your sweet self into my office
and see my sofa bed?
Simon says, we were just playing, Officer.
Simon, anything you say
can be used against you in a court of law.
Here’s another powerful poem, this time focusing on body image:
“Mannequins Make Me FeelI wish I’d had Poisoned Apples in my life when I was 14. I’m glad I have it now. I’ll leave you with a few more words from Heppermann’s Author’s Note:
Like a Failure.”
—Claudia, age 13
So how do you think you make us feel?
Winter white shifts to spring floral to the bleak chill
of swimwear, and all the while we stand rigid
as you stride through the doors,
scanning the racks for answers, a little grace
that doesn’t pinch.
You say you want to be created in our image.
Sorry, it’s the other way around.
We look hard, but underneath we are
a mess. And if we did have the power to
flex our hands, don’t you think we would
shake you like sick-and-tired mothers?
You should know how lucky you are
to have someone ask you the questions:
Can I help you find anything?
Can I help you?
Can I help?
I have never been particularly brave. But when I put on the mask of fairy tales and started writing these poems, I felt powerful. I felt free to poke around inside stories that scared me or saddened me or made me mad. The more I explored the darkness, the more I realized that the forest only looks impenetrable.They read it too:
My advice? Retell your own stories. Keep pushing your way through the trees, and I promise that, eventually, you will come to a clearing. And then you can dance.
A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy
Good Books and Good Wine