As Kalynn mentions in this interview, Cinderella is one of *the* most popular fairytales around. It has certainly always been a favourite of mine. But unlike Kalynn, as a straight white cis woman, I have never know what it is like to find myself unrepresented in popular stories. Thankfully, a new wave of writers, like Kalynn, are starting to write stories to include the full gamut humanity has to offer so everyone might be able to see themselves in the stories they love.
Why did you want to write a new take on the Cinderella story? What are the benefits – and constraints – when working with classic fairytales?
I have always loved fairytales. I had this huge volume of collected fairytales when I was a kid. It had early versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White. It also had more obscure tales like The Juniper Tree and The Ridiculous Wishes, which I was really drawn to.
I’m drawn to fairytales in general because I never saw myself in those stories and I really, really wish I had. Cinderella is such a popular story. That’s Cinderella’s castle at Disneyworld! But I didn’t have any representation in princess stories when I was a kid. There were no Black princesses at all. When I sat down to do this retelling, I knew it had to be Cinderella and I knew it was going to center Black girls in a way that allowed us access to this story in a new and interesting way.
With a retelling, I think you have to give the reader some sense of the original tale. They have to be able to see some connections between the new story you’re creating and the one that is already established. It’s fun to slip in something I know readers will instantly recognize, like the glass slippers in Cinderella. Readers know why those are significant and it’s fun to have those elements in there. But the challenge comes when you’re trying to create a unique take on a popular story, balancing the known and the unknown is hard work, but they are really my favorite kinds of stories to tell.
Cinderella is Dead takes aim at the patriarchy (which we love!). What do you hope girls will gain from reading empowering stories like this?
Addressing patriarchy goes hand in hand with addressing heteronormativity and societal expectations regarding both. So, viewing these things through the eyes of my main character, Sophia, who is a queer Black girl, allows readers to see how these constructs essentially erase anyone who doesn’t conform. She doesn’t want a husband and she wants to make her own choices about what’s best for her. This makes her a threat. Power like the kind the King of Mersailles wields can only be maintained by keeping the people fearful and/or ignorant. Sophia is neither. Luke says in Cinderella Is Dead, “Just because they deny us doesn’t mean we cease to exist.” and that is what Sophia is fighting for—the right to exist as she is, on her own terms.
I hope that queer Black girls will see themselves as the heroes, as the ones worth saving, worth fighting for, worth every bit of love and care and concern. And I hope all readers are inspired to question the status quo, to stand up for what is right even when it feels like the whole world is against them, and to understand that systems of oppression are designed to cause harm. They cannot be reformed. They must be burned to the ground.
What are some of your favourite fairytale retellings and reinterpretations? What was it that worked so well to breathe new life into those classic tales?
Wicked is probably one of my favorites. I love a good hidden history—where all of the events of the original tale are still in place but now they have a different meaning. I’ll never be able to watch the Wizard of Oz without thinking of Wicked. I think the reason it lands is because the wicked witch is a villain but somebody drops a house on her sister, steals a family heirloom, and tries to escape. I’d be mad if I was her, too! Her anger and her actions are understandable when you see where she’s coming from. So, her story adds another dimension to the events that unfold during the Wizard of Oz. I love it!
This is going to sound ridiculous, but I also really love The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Listen, this is a picture book that came out when I was about six or seven and I was obsessed with it. It’s a Three Little Pigs retelling from the POV of the Big Bad Wolf. This is the OG retelling and it set me up to constantly look at fairytales from other angles.
All books must be entertaining, but YA books often go some way towards educating as well – whether it is helping teenagers feel less alone, how to deal with grief, or understand peer pressure. What do you think most needs to be addressed in books for young readers?
As a Black author, I find that I get asked what lesson my work is meant to teach a lot more than my non-Black colleagues. There is an expectation that I have to be useful or helpful in some way in order to justify my presence and that my characters must also justify their inclusion in a particular narrative by being useful or helpful. They are not allowed to simply exist. I almost never hear a white author get asked what their book is supposed to teach people. They are allowed to write books without those books being a lesson or encompassing every aspect of white folks’existence.
Black characters, written by non-Black authors, are often brought in to teach a white main character some kind of lesson or help them realize some kind of fundamental truth about the world around them. In my work, Black characters are centered without having to qualify their existence in relation to a non-Black character and I don’t filter their experiences through the white gaze.
Cinderella Is Dead does deal with difficult themes that allow my characters to learn and grow. I want readers to come along for the journey and enjoy the ride, take from it things they find meaningful, but I wrote this story because I wanted to see a Black girl in a ballgown, I wanted to deconstruct a popular fairytale, and I wanted to center queer girls getting a shot at a happy ending. I find so much joy in telling these stories and my responsibility to my readers is to handle these very personal experiences with care and concern, to make them feel seen and held by the work.
Pitch us Cinderella is Dead! Why should we pick up a copy?
Cinderella Is Dead is about queer Black girls teaming up to overthrow the patriarchy in a world where Cinderella was real but has been dead for 200 years. It’s a fairytale, reimagined. You may think you know the true story of Cinderella but really, you have no idea.
Kalynn Bayron is an author and classically trained vocalist. She grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. When she’s not writing you can find her listening to Ella Fitzgerald on loop, attending the theater, watching scary movies, and spending time with her kids. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas with her family.
Cinderella is Dead is out now from Bloomsbury.