Book Review: Grim, Edited by Christine Johnson

Grima fantastic collection of short stories edited by Christine Johnson, is an encapsulation of some of my favourite things in YA. It’s a great sampling of fantastic authors all in one package for people who want to try out a bunch of different writers to see if they can find someone they like, for starters. It’s also a collection of creepy, eerie, female-focused fairytale retellings, which is always delightful to read. And it takes stories in some new and interesting directions, which is a must-have with retellings in a world where more and more writers seem to be going this route. I need a compelling reason to read short stories, and Grim has it, because it’s just so darn good.

Based on tales from the classics of Western society, Grim explores the world from the point of view of female heroines, twists stories on their ends, and adds macabre, creepy, and delicious things to stories that are already pretty weird to begin with. Plus, there’s a healthy injection of gay YA, along with reworkings of familiar characters to make them much more unfamiliar, and much more interesting and fun to read about — less Good Witch, more chaosmongering, if you know what I’m saying.

As many people now know, historic fairytales were both rather grim, and also very meandering. They picked up and dropped off at various points, mutated depending on where they were, and often had really horrible fates for both their protagonists and side characters. While we think of fairytales as light and fluffy (thanks, Disney), the classics were often rather horrid, and became more so with repeat tellings. As folklore experts collected them, some began to bowdlerise them, changing their nature and cleaning them up, until by the 1800s, the original form of many of these stories was gone.

Which is kind of funny, since the 1800s marked an era of moralising and terrifying tales about little boys and girls who endure terrible circumstances and have awful things happen to them. Apparently this needed to be cut out of classic fairytales, but was totally okay for children’s books as well as those read by young adults. Of course, fairytales also involved fantasy elements, while the moral tales of the era were set in a very real and unpleasant reality which took swipes at low-income people as well as disabled people and other members of society who lived on the margins.

Thanks to restoration work, our understanding of fairytales is starting to change, and many retellings are bringing back both of these important elements. In Grim, some of the stories are very macabre and gloomy. They also don’t resolve. Many simply trail off, in an artfully constructed way, not a lazy one, and other prefer to end ambiguously, implying, but not stating, what might be happening next for the characters — which, if they’re men, is often nothing good. I’m all for this as a reader, because I like seeing fairytale guys get the short end of the stick for once, while their female counterparts have an opportunity to go on being amazing.

I love, for example, the retelling of a story where a princes is turned into a bird. In this narrative, a prince encounters her in bird form and falls in love with her, and he’s directed to show up at an appointed spot at midnight, when she transforms into human form briefly. If he truly loves her, she says, she can change back forever. But he can’t seem to stay awake at the meeting point, and the princess doubts him, until finally the moment comes and he sees her in human form…only she basically goes ‘eh, you’re cute, but I actually really like being a bird, so, whatever dude.’

It’s such a fantastic exploration of a historic story, of gender, and of how women are expected to sacrifice for men. There’s an assumption in this heteronormative society that women need men to feel complete, and that all women are on an ultimate path to find their mates — that without this, they will never be able to live out their lives in peace. Under that framework, a girl trapped in the body of a bird is bound for a life of suffering because she can’t find a man to live out her days with. This story upends that by suggesting that she’s perfectly happy as a bird, and, moreover, is willing to give up the attentions of an interested male partner to focus on living as a bird.

What happens next in the story is something you’ll have to find out for yourself when you read it, but I can assure you that it doesn’t boil down to the girl suddenly giving up her freedom and deciding that, well, boys are just so nice that she’d better have this one.

This kind of storytelling runs throughout the book, with text that centers women’s lives and experiences, and places a strong emphasis on independent, beautiful, forthright women who don’t mess around with their lives and aren’t waiting for men to marry them, rescue them, fight their battles, or do anything else for them. The ones who are heterosexual can basically take or leave men, it often seems, and the lesbian and queer women are leading different, empowered lives in retold fantasy worlds where their sexual orientation and gender identities play seamless roles within the context of the larger text, rather than being used to clonk the reader over the head.

Sometimes I’m in the mood for short stories, and Grim is perfect, offering me little nibblings of great writing that make me hungry for more…