The Red Shoes by Gloria Fowler: Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tale With a Modern Twist
"There is really nothing in this world that can be compared to red shoes!"— Hans Christian Anderson, 1845
by Gloria Fowler and illustrated by Sun Yung Yoo (Ammo Books, 2008) is a striking new take on a popular but lesser known fairy tale by Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen. Fowler and Yoo's book is a must-read for any fan of children's picture books, and particularly of fairy tales, because the exquisitely-detailed line drawings in this book are so lovely and the story is entirely unique. The Red Shoes
Fowler's Red Shoes draws loosely from the fairy tale of the same name, but this modern version of the Red Shoes morphs key plot elements and story points from Andersen's morality tale into a story about enduring life's difficulties by drawing strength from the memories of our departed loved ones. Like many fairy tales, the deeper meaning of this story may be lost on young children, but the story is yet entertaining and easy to understand.
Originally, Andersen's version of The Red Shoes features Karen, an impious, vain, and selfish orphan girl who is taught a lesson when she tries on a pair of beautiful but bewitched red dancing shoes. After Karen puts on the red shoes, she can no longer take them off, and they keep dancing and dancing. Finally Karen goes to the executioner and begs him to cut the shoes off of her feet. In Andersen's ending, which is gruesome but true to the times, the executioner complies and Karen is finally able to repent of her ungodly ways. Several translations are available for free online.
Gloria Fowler has done an admirable job of modernizing this fascinating story while keeping its themes intact, both without the gruesome details of the 19th century version and without its moralizing tone. Fowler's story simply begins "Karen's mother was the town shoemaker, and though they didn't have much money, they had creativity to spare ." In Fowler's story, when Karen is suddenly orphaned, her grief overtakes her and she clings to a lovely pair of red shoes that her mother made for her.
The red shoes become an emblem of Karen's grief and embody Karen's loving memories of her mother. When she is feeling overcome with grief, Karen puts on the red shoes and dances in the forest, remembering her mother's free spirit. By clinging to the red shoes, Karen is able to survive.
But one day, the Queen and princess drive through the forest in their carriage, and see Karen dancing there. In this story, it is the princess who is selfish, greedy, and spoiled, and she demands that Karen give her the prized red shoes.
As an homage to the original story, Karen is told that if she doesn't hand over her shoes, the executioner will cut them off of her feet. I love the touching resolution to this story, which makes this modern retelling much more about overcoming grief and finding strength from within. Ultimately Karen realizes she doesn't need the pair of red shoes to remember her deceased mother because Karen's own creativity is a gift she has inherited from her mother. And no one can take that away from her. This conclusion is profound and awe-inspiring. I was moved to tears by this story. And if you've read my other reviews, you'll know it is not the first time, but this particular story is a tender topic.
Both the original Red Shoes story by Hans Christian Andersen and this new retelling are fundamentally stories about character transformation. The original story is a tale of repentance and redemption. The updated version tells of a different kind of redemption, the kind women experience when they believe in themselves and draw upon the memories of their loving relationships. Fowler shows a deep wisdom and a profound understanding of the way women relate to themselves and each other in this unique and transcendent children's story.
The Red Shoes Illustrations
When I first saw the cover art for this book, I knew I had to read it, if only for the illustrations. Sun Young Yoo's pen and ink line art illustrations are organic, flowing, and subtly detailed. The end papers for the book include hundreds of uniquely designed shoes, all of them drawn in black and white with great detail. I love the way Yoo uses spare details to draw Karen's expressive eyes and flowing hair, which is just like her mother's. I also love the small but nimble hands on Yoo's drawings, perhaps inspired by Asian art. They are so expressive and seem to exude confidence and expertise.
Each page is illustrated with a black ink drawing on a white background. This is Yoo's debut as a children's illustrator. Ironically, in a story about red shoes, there isn't one page with the color red. But somehow color is superfluous here. The use of black and white drawings in this fairy tale is suggestive of the illustrations used In Hans Christian Andersen's day. Many of his stories published in the late nineteenth century used black and white line art drawings too.
The Red Shoes is published by Ammo Books, a small publisher of high-end art books including Charley Harper's ABC's, a children's board book inspired by the graphic design work of the late artist, Charley Harper. Ammo Books is a forward-looking and trendsetting publisher with an eye for design, even in its children's books.
Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen was a prolific short story writer of children's books of the 19th century who lived in Denmark. His literary legacy is still considered a "Danish National Treasure" over 100 years after his death. Andersen wrote many well-known children's stories. Many of these stories were written during the Victorian era and reflect the moralizing tone of literature written during that time. Andersen himself, like many authors, was a complicated figure, who according to his biographers and literary critics, was unlucky in love. Some of Andersen's most famous stories include:
- The Little Mermaid
- The Ugly Duckling
- The Little Match Girl
- The Steadfast Tin Soldier
- The Emporer's New Clothes
The Princess and the Pea
A Few Final Thoughts About The Transformation of The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes is probably considered one of Andersen's lesser-known stories in the United States. For those familiar with children's fairy tales, the red shoes story about a young girl who is punished for her vanity and ingratitude suddenly sounds familiar when we hear of dancing shoes that won't stop dancing. In fact, other modern stories continue to borrow elements from this morality tale, including the movie Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses, in which the villians are punished by dancing forever and ever.
From a modern perspective, Andersen's version of The Red Shoes sounds like a harsh tale of retribution, and the punishment unfit for the young girl's crime. Even to a person who considers herself religious, Andersen's version of the tale seems extreme and makes the religious atmosphere of Denmark in Andersen's time seem cruel and overzealous. I am honestly intrigued by the way author Gloria Fowler took Andersen's original story and turned it into a transformative tale of regeneration. By taking key elements of the story and shifting them into new places, the story of the Red Shoes has become a wonderful story about overcoming grief and loss. I hope you will check into this story and read it for yourself.
What Do You Think?
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More Fairy Tales Links
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- Hans Christian Andersen and his fairy tales
I have always loved fairy tales. When I was a child, I especially loved them when I sat on my father's lap and he read them to me. I was safe and secure no matter how many hobgoblins, witches, ice queens, or mean step-mothers were out there. Sitting.
- Hans Christian Andersen: The Red Shoes
One of several translations of Andersen's fairy tales, this link will take you to The Red Shoes.
- LibriVox Andersens Fairy Tales by H.C. Andersen
Listen to a free audio recording of The Red Shoes included on the Librivox free website containing public domain literature.
© 2009 Carolyn Augustine