Helen Oyeyemi takes on a new fairy tale in 'Boy, Snow, Bird'

'Boy, Snow, Bird' is a take on the 'Snow White' legend.

'Boy, Snow, Bird' is by Helen Oyeyemi.

Once again, writer Helen Oyeyemi has captivated critics with a new take on a fairy tale, this time focusing on the Brothers Grimm legend “Snow White” for her new novel “Boy, Snow, Bird.”

In “Boy, Snow, Bird,” which is set in 1950s New England, a woman named Boy Novak marries a widower who has a young daughter named Snow. However, when Boy gives birth to the widower’s child and the baby is born with dark skin, she discovers that the Whitmans are an African-American family who has convinced the town that they are white.

The book was released on March 6 and we named it as one of the best books of the month, as did Amazon. Monitor fiction critic Yvonne Zipp says the novel is an “unsettling book that casts a spell without ever using those four magic words [“once upon a time”] … [it’s a] riveting story about race and women’s identities in the 20th century.”

Oyeyemi’s first novel “The Icarus Girl” was inspired by Nigerian legends and her second, “The Opposite House,” drew elements from Cuban stories. "Mr. Fox," her fourth novel which was released in 2011, was inspired by the “Bluebeard” fairy tale most famously penned by Charles Perrault.

The writer's not alone in thinking up new versions of magical stories. Though some fairy tale films like 2013's "Jack the Giant Slayer" and 2011's "Red Riding Hood" and "Beastly" saw disappointing box office returns, new takes on fairy tales are still alive and well in pop culture. To name just a few examples: ABC is airing its third season of the fairy tale mashup series "Once Upon a Time," the "Snow Queen"-inspired Disney film "Frozen" is smashing box office records this winter, and the Stephen Sondheim fairy tale musical "Into the Woods" set to hit theaters this December.

Oyeyemi told NPR her fondness for reworking the stories of others began young. Reading “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott as a girl “turned me into a writer," she said, but "I had so many problems with it. I was so upset with Beth dying, with Jo and Laurie not getting married. So I just crossed out all those things and wrote new endings. Then I went from there to writing my own things and never really looked back.” 

For “Boy, Snow, Bird,” Oyoyemi says she was inspired to write the story because she had so many questions about the heroine of “Snow White.”

“I found it so strange how she could be so mild and so sweet after everything she's gone through,” she said. “She's thrown out of her house by her wicked stepmother. She has to live with these dwarves. There's so much front to it. And it started to scare me because I thought that beneath that front there must be so much suffering. Snow, in all her unexposed beauty, and being in a way public property of everyone who looks at her, goes through that. I find something so terrible about suffering in the open in public, with nobody seeing what's happening to you.” 

She notes that those who think fairy tales are only for the young set need to remember what actually happens in those stories. 

“Sometimes people ask me what I write and I say that I retell fairy tales, and they say, 'Oh, children's books!'” Oyeyemi said. “And that makes me laugh. People say things like 'I want a fairy tale existence.' The Brothers Grimm would be looking at them in this astonished way, like 'So you would like your whole family to be murdered and then eaten in a pie?' ”

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