Dec 4, 2014

Poisoned Apples by Christine Heppermann

Poisoned Apples by Christine HeppermannPoisoned Apples by Christine Heppermann

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.
But here’s a great thing about stories: they can be retold.

From the Author’s Note.
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.

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.
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!
Hop closer.
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.
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.

Here’s another powerful poem, this time focusing on body image:
“Mannequins Make Me Feel
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 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:
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.
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.
They read it too:
A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy
Good Books and Good Wine



  1. I have this book out from the library right now. I read the first poem in the car on the way home, and then read it again, and again. And every single time, it pretty much ripped my heart apart.

  2. It's really something, isn't it? You'll love the whole collection.

  3. I haven't read poetry since school, it's something I'd like to do, because the ideas are often great, but, I don't know, my brain needs to be retrained to read them properly I think.

    This collection sounds like it might be a great place to start though.

  4. I'm going to get this for my daughter - I think she'll get a lot out if it. It sounds like a very powerful read.

  5. Thanks for linking to Ursu's essay - very good, and a perfect amount of scathing. I love Hepperman's poem Ursu reprinted in her essay - the last line is rather chilling.

  6. Wonderful review, Ana! I remember reading a short review of 'Poisoned Apples' in Amy's blog. It is nice that you have reviewed it too, in a more detailed way. I loved this sentence from your review - "But we can make up new ones, one subversive retelling at a time." I also loved that last passage from the book you have quoted ("Retell your own stories. Keep pushing your way through the trees"). I also loved what Christy said about Ursu's essay - "a perfect amount of scathing" :)

    Well, the long part of my comment is coming here :) Sorry :)

    Thanks for linking to Ursu's essay. I read it and starting from the sentence - "Did you know the patriarchy was dead? It must be true, as I learned that by reading it in an essay printed in the newsletter of the patriarchy." - I loved it. I didn't know that cultural icons like the NYT and the New Yorker are also the homes of the Patriarchy, as the article puts it. It is sad. When I read Beha's quote - "If we really are living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art." - I couldn't stop laughing. It would have been comic, if it wasn't tragic. And Jonathan Emmett's comment - "But there is a literacy gap – boys are underachieving, boys do not like books as much as girls. I am arguing that this is because the industry is dominated by female gatekeepers." - made me really angry. And I loved that C.S.Lewis quote. I was really worried when I started reading that, because I was wondering whether C.S.Lewis had put his foot in his mouth (I love C.S.Lewis), but unfortunately, he didn't.

    The only issue with Ursa's essay I had was this sentence on Heppermann's book - "Personally, I think it’s one of the most adult works of art I’ve ever seen." I personally think that a book doesn't need to be an adult work of art. It can be a child / adolescent work of art. A book doesn't need to be an adult work of art to be a great piece of literature or a great work advocating social change. I thought that was the point of the whole essay.

    Thanks for the review and for sharing Ursu's essay, Ana. I loved both of them. Sharing Ursu's essay with all my friends now :)

  7. I just read A.O.Scott's article in the NYT that Ursa had linked to, Ana. It states a mostly male point of view, but it wasn't as bad as I thought. It was more nuanced than I imagined.

    For example, Scott says this when he talks about YA fiction - "The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight. I’m all for it."

    He also says this - "In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is finished, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand. I may be a middle-aged white man, but I’m not an idiot. In the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life."

    Scott also quotes Ruth Graham's piece in Slate in which she says that adults should be embarassed to read YA books, a position Scott doesn't take himself.

    One thing which I had a problem with, in the article though, was this - Scott mostly talks about male-oriented TV series when he talks about the important, artistic TV series in the past decade, like 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad'. He doesn't talk about series like 'Homeland', 'Orphan Black', 'Orange is the New Black' and others which have strong female protagonists. Clearly, though he is a movie critic, he doesn't know what is happening in the TV series world. Or he has chosen to ignore what is happening.

  8. I don't know. I've read Ursu's piece and this review, and it sounds over-simplified to me. There are plenty of girls who don't make themselves smaller; they make themselves bigger in opposition to the idea that they should get smaller. Few women writers engage with the oppositional girls-they sideline them with "eating their feelings" jokes or defend them from fat shaming, but they don't often consider their size as a reaction.

  9. Fence: I did spend a while without reading poetry, but when I restarted it wasn't so much a matter of re-learning how to do it as it was of reminding myself that I knew how, and enjoyed it too. I hope you like these poems if you get around to them.

    Belle: It certainly was for me - I hope it will be for your daughter too!

    Christy: Like Vishy below, I love your wording - well put!

    Vishy: No sorry! You know I enjoy your long and thoughtful comments. I take your point about not equating "adult" with "sophisticated", but having seen Anne Ursu defend YA and MG from simplifying generalisations countless times before, I read that line more generously - for me, that "adult" should be between quotation marks, because it's an allusion to all the things people mean when they use the term, which can indeed be (and in fact are) found in books for children. And like you say, that IS the point of the essay. So in the context of all the work I've seen Ursu do over the years, I read that sentence differently. As for Scott's piece, my problem is the opposite - I find myself unable to read him generously, which is perhaps unfortunate but is the result of an accumulation of things. He makes all the right disclaimers about feminism's work not being done and etc, but then... when all is said and done he still defaults to equating stories that are centred on men with the best storytelling we have today, as you so well point out, and I find that kind of erasure exhausting. I'd be able to approach his piece more openly if it had been written in isolation, but it's one among so many that it just made me shut down.

    Jeanne: "There are plenty of girls who don't make themselves smaller; they make themselves bigger in opposition to the idea that they should get smaller." Yes, this is absolutely true. There's no universal experience of being a girl or woman, and no work that will resonate the same way with everyone. I'm not sure I completely get what you mean by the rest of your comment, but I'm always interested in what you have to say and would love to hear more about it if you wanted to expand.

  10. I liked what you said about how we use the world 'adult', Ana. Looking at Ursu's essay from that perspective, I can understand that sentence better. Well, now after getting inspired by you, I have keep an eye on Ursu's blog :) I can understand why you feel that way about Scott's piece - in the beginning he goes on and on about 'Mad Men' and 'The Sopranos' and 'Breaking Bad' that it was quite painful to read. I just wanted to ask him - 'Dude, do you know what is happening in TV today?' :)

  11. I'll think about this more and see if I can write a blog post on it. Maybe that will help me carve out more time for blogging this spring.

  12. I have nothing to add except I LOVED this book. Just loved it. I bought a copy for my niece (19 years old) and it's definitely one of the best books I read this year.

  13. I am not a poetry person, but this sounds like poetry I could actually read and enjoy.

  14. You know I read poetry, Ana, and have been reading fairy tale poems as I come across them. I hadn't heard of this collection, and I admit that I have added to my cart on Amazon for my Christmas box! As I am in the process of processing some trauma from my childhood, I think this book could help me reframe and shape some of the things I went through. Making my way through the woods with what I know now :-) thanks so much, Ana.

    Excellent review, by the way.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.