The Red Shoes by Gloria Fowler, Illustrated by Susan Young Yoo
American Modern Books (AMMO), 2008.
The title of this one caught my attention. Slipping it off the shelf I thought the cover intriguing, a quick flip through led me to want a longer look. I hadn’t read the jacket copy except to scan and confirm a Hans Christian Anderson reference. I was curious how a children’s picture book would base their story upon a tale that had been written with an older audience in mind; especially a tale that is quite disturbing. What follows is not a negative review, but neither is it easy. The short of it: but for the first paragraph, ignore the jacket copy and do not compare it to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.”
Artistically stunning, The Red Shoes, as envisioned by Susan Young Yoo, creates a magical world of beautiful shoes, ornament and fashion through her exquisite pen and ink drawings.
This contemporary version of The Red Shoes is a delightful story about finding one’s creative passion, and pursuing one’s dreams even under great adversity. In this version, the character Karen focuses on her creativity, imagination and hard work in order to over come great obstacles. In contrast, the original version of this story, written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1845, reflected the mores of the day, and was a lesson on taboo desire, punishment, and repentance. This new interpretation is a positive message that is sure to delight a new generation of readers.—jacket copy.
I figured there would have to be some noticeable changes made from the story upon which Gloria Fowler’s The Red Shoes was based. I doubted there would be Karen’s amputated feet dancing in red shoes, or even the soldier, angel and executioner. [There was the threat of the executioner upon the Queen’s orders; which is understandably not as chilling as Andersen’s use.] The question was how and where would they diverge?* And in all fairness, I tried to push aside the niggling “To what end?” afterward.
But for a handful of similarities, none of the references were interested in carrying the weight of the Andersen story—two of the most significant being: Karen (who was not like Karen at all) and the red shoes (which were repurposed in an equally noble fashion). “Based upon” was an assumption that may have set me up,** perhaps “inspired by” is the better approach as it can mean a number of things, so I re-calibrated with: “I read this story, found a particular theme compelling as well as a few aspects appealing so I wrote this picture book for young ears and eyes.” So if you are not familiar with “The Red Shoes” and like modern tale-telling The Red Shoes should stand well on its own for you. If you are familiar, it may work yet…I’ve come across sites expecting lover’s of fairy tales in general and Andersen’s story in particular to become quick fans. I had Natalya (12 and long time reader of Grimm, Andersen and others) read it. She shrugged and thought it good, especially the illustrations. She recommends it works for young audiences as a story on its own.
The Red Shoes: Karen’s mother dies before she is able to finish a special pair of red shoes she had been creating as a birthday present. Karen is able to wear them and indeed she never takes them off as she dances about in the woods. When the Queen and her spoiled daughter happen upon her, the daughter wants Karen’s red shoes, which have since become fused to her feet. Well she has 3 days to find a way to remove the shoes or they will cut her feet off in order to have those shoes. The other “great obstacle” is the shoes’ deep sentimental value. She finds herself grieving once more for her mother, but she is as courageous as she is creative and she constructs another pair of shoes. The creative therapy releases the red shoes from her feet in an act that reflects her ability to finally let go and move forward, knowing her mother would still be with her. The sequence also reiterates the notion that the red shoes are not connected to her for selfish reasons (nor was the dancing for that matter); it was all to remember her “mother’s joyful spirit and wishing that she was still alive.” Karen is as sweet as the princess is evil. When the royals return, the princess decides she’d rather have the new shoes Karen is now wearing and Karen draws the courage (from a budding ambition) to bargain for money in exchange. With the success and villagers new found respect, she opens a shop full of glorious shoes she calls “The Red Shoes.” And creativity wins the day! Lovers of shoes everywhere will salivate, and budding young enthusiasts will find their own imaginations jump-started in creating their own line.
Susan Young Yoo’s black and white illustrations are truly wonderful. They lend the atmospheric appeal to the tale that the text lacks. Long flowing hair, threads, and material are strewn less with abandon but more with the unbound. The images of leaves and petals are sewn into the mother’s clothes, flowers among Karen’s. When Karen dances in the forest the trees are bare and jagged and the petals torn from Karen’s flower looks like tears and/or the leaves on the mother’s dress. The daughter is an image of her mother, most remarkably captured in the illustration of Karen seeing her mother’s face in the reflection in the river. But then Karen also looks like all the other girls, except only Karen’s are the only eyes we see, not veiled by long bangs. As the poverty does not seem a real issue in the book, it becomes negligible that Karen is not tattered or bare-footed. Indeed the greatest source of despair is the loss of her mother and hero and Yoo’s work contributes to this beautifully. I mentioned the river, another way Yoo underlies the progression is how Karen becomes a greater presence on the page as she grows in courage and confidence after her mother dies.
In the Annotated Hans Christian Andersen,*** it is noted that “Today, Karen’s dance in Andersen’s tale is read less as an act of insolent arrogance than as an expression of creativity. The tale has become for many feminist writers and critics an allegory of the violence threatening those who prefer creative fulfillment to compliance with conventional social roles” (251). The Red Shoes focuses upon this modern thematic reading of the courage and determination to pursue creativity in the face of adversity. Fowler does not complicate the narrative with “taboo desire, punishment, and repentance,” or the pressure for social compliance (which functions as a call to recant) that still remains in modern interpretations. And doing so removes considerable angst from the conflict in “The Red Shoes.” But then what implications can you create for a female child reader when dance has not yet undergone puberty?
The greatest obstacle in the child Karen’s world is the loss of her mother/hero. She is isolated, and mourning, but it is never clear what happens to her with her mother’s passing. Indeed, her eventual return to a dusty shop and reclaiming the creative space which she shared with her mother is an important moment in the story. It is not 1845, it is a no place fairy tale. Some of the cultural work is left to the reader. As it is the only thing at stake is losing her mother all over again—outside of being an amputee; which the story shifts away from with Fowler’s confirmation of what the red shoes symbolize in this story—the mother who embodies the creative spirit for Karen. Once confirmed, there is a reminder that she is able to find her mother in more places than the red shoes. All this is more than enough for a picture book for young audiences.
Fowler writes a good enough story all her own. It is certainly better than “delightful.” And I believe it works so much better without the ghost of Andersen’s “Red Shoes” lingering about.
*Those familiar with Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” note the shared name of the protagonist (but not character), that she is said to be poor, her mother does die, she wears the red shoes to the funeral, she dances in the woods, a Queen and her daughter are seen, red shoes are fused to Karen’s feet, an executioner, and there is a petulant child (though not Karen). Karen has a desire to pursue an Artful career creating beautiful things, and a shoemaker which is an occupation that is held by a woman in both stories.
**It is more than semantics when I say that I would have preferred their use of “inspired by” rather than “based upon” after the first reading and I was worried I was just being nit-picky. And then N says, “I can see where it was inspired by Andersen’s.” So I asked N if and how she viewed the two and she felt “based upon” was a bit of a stretch, too. “Based upon” in our humble perspectives mean: the new version is going to carry a significant amount of the weight of the earlier—in a major character, a theme, a symbol, etc.
***Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Maria Tatar (translations by Tatar and Julie K. Allen), W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.