Book Review: How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales by Kate Bernheimer

The cover of Kate Bernheimer’s story collection How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, with its golden tones and its pastel lettering, is deceptively placid. Are we sailing through a field, or squirming nose-deep through shag carpeting? As it turns out, either would be appropriate. Inside, Bernheimer leads us through worlds both wild and domestic – from outer space to the cruelest of classrooms, from the dinosaur age to modern suburban sprawl. Bernheimer’s goal seems to be to take the classic fairy tale as we know it and turn it inside out, exposing its guts in all their beautiful, brutal, pitch-black glory. Rather than simply reiterating this form of storytelling, she is reinventing it. The results are multi-layered and wholly satisfying.

As the title implies, the collection is a study on girlhood and the pains and pleasures of adolescence as seen through the lens of the fairy tale and presented in the format of a children’s book. The book’s large type, sparse pages, and gorgeously haunting illustrations by Catherine Eyde are deceptive in their physical simplicity. Mothers trick daughters, childhood friends betray each other, and in the title story, a life-size talking doll (“probably a witch”) teaches them all a lesson. Bernheimer weaves the color pink throughout the book as a mostly effective motif that, at times, verges on becoming a tad heavy-handed. Then again, in the realm of the fairy tale, one must question whether too much is ever really too much. 

Indeed, Bernheimer makes striking use of the genre’s excesses. In “Oh Jolly Playmate!”, a heartbreaking story that reads more like a poem or a surreal dream, three girls fixated on the color pink become fast friends one summer, but drift away due to personal tragedy and the isolating effects of growing up and growing apart. They eat melting pink ice cream and write email to each other on pink backgrounds. “Think pink. Drink pink.” The color saturates these pages to the point of bleeding, and we are left to ponder the razor-thin line between childhood love and hate, between the magic of discovery and the pain of loss. Despite its occasional extremes, Bernheimer deftly juggles the tones, balancing pathos with dark humor and the universally familiar with the hauntingly uncanny. Though her fairy tales resonate with a bedtime story lyricism, their unnerving edge is masterfully contemporary.

Anyone moderately interested in fairy tales in recent years is likely familiar with Bernheimer. She has served as the editor of four anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales and xo Orpheus: 50 New Myths. She has authored a novel series and children’s books, and is the founding editor of the literary journal Fairy Tale Review. Bernheimer has been called a “living master” of the fairy tale, an authority, and a scholar of the form, though she regards herself as a “self-taught critical celebrator.” As she has said, fairy tales defy definition as a fixed thing, and are more of a language or a way of reading a story. “You recognize a fairy tale through its techniques, and through its effect on you.” 

The very title of How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales forces the reader to question the fairy tale’s effect. Why would a mother wean her girl from fairy tales? “Do we need to wean ourselves from fairy tales?” we ask as we trace the breadcrumbs past the innocuous cover to follow the beautiful but bizarre girls into their realm. Within sporadic illustrated interludes, the narrator repeats the refrain “I’m yours...” to the reader in different permutations. At one point: “I’m yours. I have some dark notions, but you glow green.” At another: “I’m yours. You do not know me. You never will.” Who is speaking? Perhaps it is the fairy tale itself, as it belongs to all of us and means different things to each of us. 

We grow up on fairy tales; adults read them to us, perhaps hoping to teach us morality. But the popularity of Bernheimer’s work, and the increasing pop culture interest and scholarly approach to fairy tales, speaks to the fact that we can retain that fascination with magic even into adulthood. Sure, we may become more intrigued by the darker underbelly of the mythology as we grow older, but if we’re lucky, we never lose the urge to seek out the impossible made possible. Our mothers may try to wean us from fairy tales, but with enchanting work like this, we’ll succumb to their allure every time.