The fairy tales of now

Writer Gail Carson Levine asks, 'How about a spunky Cinderella?'

When she was growing up, Gail Carson Levine's dad wouldn't talk about his childhood.

She knew that he grew up in a Hebrew orphanage in 1920s New York, but not much else. One of the only stories he told her was how he would sneak out of the orphanage to get candy to sell to the other boys.

Ms. Levine, now an award-winning children's author, turned that story into a book. Only in "Dave at Night," it's not candy her character is after, it's adventure. And what he finds is the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, full of parties and jazz and unexpected friends.

Writing the book also helped Levine learn more about her heritage as a Sephardic Jew. The Sephardim are descended from Jews who were forced to leave Spain in 1840. Levine peppers the book with details. Sephardic eggs, for example, are prepared by hard-boiling them with coffee grounds and onions. (Levine has never tried them, but she says her cousin told her they're delicious.)

While the book is based on her family history, Dave "is not my father," she says. But she does hope that the 10-year-old orphan in her book has "a little bit of my father, a little bit of his courage."

"Dave at Night" (HarperCollins, 1999) is the first book Levine has written that isn't fantasy. Her first novel, "Ella Enchanted" (HarperCollins, 1997) is a retelling of the Cinderella story. Levine was taking a class on writing children's books and couldn't think of anything to write about. So, she figured, hey, Cinderella's a good story. I'll do a version of that.

But the Cinderella character was "so passive, I didn't know what to do with her." To Levine, Cinderella seemed a little namby-pamby.

Levine decided to give her main character a twist. Ella is a spunky teenager from the Kingdom of Frell, but she's under a fairy spell. She has to do whatever anyone tells her to do. Ella's life gets really difficult when her selfish stepsisters figure this out. The book was a Newbery Honor winner, a runner-up to the Newbery Award for children's literature.

Levine wrote "Ella Enchanted" on the train. She and her husband (who has his own computer-software business) had moved to an old farmhouse in Brewster, N.Y., with an Airedale named Jake.

She had a two-hour commute to her job with the New York City welfare department. That left her with plenty of time to write. It took her two years to finish the story. Getting the book published took a lot longer - nine years, in fact.

Levine is also writing The Princess Series, short novels based on fairy tales - all of which have a sense of whimsy and humor. So far she's tackled "Sleeping Beauty," "The Princess and the Pea," and "Toads and Diamonds."

Levine likes writing fairy tales, she says, because she's more comfortable working with in a world she's invented. But that means "I carry around a lot of complicated stuff in my head."

Some of her favorite fairy tales are "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," and "Beauty and the Beast."

She read and reread "Peter Pan," "Anne of Green Gables," and Louisa May Alcott's books ("Little Women" and "Little Men," among others) when she was a girl. "I write to the reader I was when I was a kid," she says.

While she loved to read, she always thought she was going to be an actress or an artist. The walls of her 18th-century farmhouse are covered with paintings done by herself, relatives, and friends. The artwork for the cover of "Dave at Night" hangs on a wall by the fireplace in her living room. Upstairs, in the small bedroom where she writes, is a picture of a snoozing polar bear. It's an illustration from one of her friend's picture books.

But she says she was too tough on herself as an artist. If her painting wasn't ready to hang on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, then it just wasn't good enough. But "my self-critic is very quiet when I write," she says. She could have fun and be creative as a writer.

Her newest book is a mix of real-life and fantasy. It's about Wilma, the most unpopular girl in the eighth grade, and what happens when she gets her wish to be popular. ("The Wish" is to be published later this year by HarperCollins.)

Levine skipped eighth grade herself, and she doesn't watch TV. So she interviewed a lot of teenagers to find out what middle school is like today. Levine actually spends a fair amount of time in class. She teaches children (many of whom are taller than their teacher) creative writing at a nearby school. She's fond of asking her students if they have a voice in their head criticizing everything they do. "That voice is the enemy of creativity," she says. "Get that voice to shut up."

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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