Today we have a special treat. An Inkie gets to interview one of our own! Kate Coombs is releasing an adorable retelling of Hans My Hedgehog, a classic Grimm’s Brothers Fairytale. This children’s tale is illustrated by John Nickle and is being released by Atheneum.
A classic tale of love and acceptance from the Brothers Grimm is beautifully rendered in this magical retelling. Hans is an unusual boy. Born a hedgehog from the waist up, he knows what it’s like to truly be an outcast. Even his amazing fiddle playing can’t help him fit in. So Hans flees to the forest with his herd of loyal pigs and only his music to keep him company. But then a most unusual thing happens: When Hans crosses paths with two kings with two lovely daughters, his luck starts to change. Will this lonely soul find true love after all?
This lively and lyrical retelling of the classic Grimm’s tale, paired with lush, detailed illustrations, reminds us of the power of music, the importance of belonging, and the transformative effect of love.
So let’s see what Kate can tell us about it!
Why did you decide to retell "Hans My Hedgehog"?
Funny story, actually—it was the illustrator's idea. John Nickle told his editor at Atheneum that he wanted to do a picture book version of "Hans My Hedgehog." The editor read the Grimms' version and decided that it would not do. My editor at Atheneum mentioned to John's editor that I was good with folktales, so I got a call. Susan told me that the original was "violent and meandering" and asked me to write a retelling. So that's how the project started.
Your story reminded me of the story of Jepthah's daughter in the Bible. I wonder if that is where the Grimm brothers got it from.
This would be about each of the kings promising to give Hans the first thing they saw when they got home. In the Bible, that kind of promise turns out really badly! Since "Hans My Hedgehog" is from the oral tradition, it has certainly crossed my mind that some long-ago storyteller who knew his or her Old Testament used that piece of the Jepthah story to construct part of the plot for "Hans."
Is this your first book?
No, it's my fourth. I have written a picture book that's an original folktale, The Secret-Keeper, and two middle grade comic fantasy novels, The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon. In late March I have a book of ocean poems coming out, Water Sings Blue.
How long does it take you to write a children's book?
A middle grade novel takes me about a year. A picture book often comes quickly, in a week or less, but then I revise for months, coming back to it over and over. That's not including the revising and editing work that takes place with the publisher, which can be extensive. In fact, Hans was a project that went on kind of long—I worked on it with four different editors before it finally got past the point of no return!
Do you have children of your own that inspire you?
No. But I've taught every grade from kindergarten to college, so I've worked with a lot kids. More important, I would say I've brought my child-like sense of delight with me across the years. I never lost it.
How did you go about choosing an illustrator?
In almost all cases, an author has little or no say in choosing an illustrator. It is perhaps the editor's greatest creative act to select an illustrator for a picture book or for the cover of a middle grade or young adult novel. The editor works with the design department and even the marketing department to make that decision. And I have found myself waiting 2-3 years for an illustrator to sign on to a picture book project. So far, the wait has paid off!
Do you have any other books you are working on?
I have a middle grade fantasy novel called Lemonade Wings making the rounds of agents and editors, so that's my most recent manuscript. Now I'm reworking a middle grade fantasy set in Los Angeles, and I've started a new poetry collection. I'm tinkering with a couple of fairy tale retellings for middle grade, as well.
What is your writing process?
After years of being a teacher, I now work as an education editor. So I have to squeeze the writing in around the edges. Another ongoing project is my children's book review blog, Book Aunt, which takes time. I've found that early mornings work for me, especially on Saturdays. If you write for even an hour or two a week, eventually you'll have a book.
What were your favorite books as a child?
I was an absolute bookworm as a child, so the books I loved (and love) are myriad! I remember going through a Nancy Drew phase and, not surprisingly, I read a lot of fairy tales from many lands. My grandma gave me a collection of tales from the Arabian Nights, for example. I remember a picture book called The Sugar Mouse Cake that I liked a lot, along with Many Moons by James Thurber. One of my favorite middle grade fantasies, besides obvious things like the Narnia books, was Taash and the Jesters by Ellen Kindt McKenzie. I also loved The Princess and the Goblins by George MacDonald. And Harriet the Spy, and The Westing Game. Among so many others!
What kinds of books do you like to read now?
I'm still reading children's books, plus a smattering of books by authors who write for adults. My favorite children's authors for middle grade are Diana Wynne Jones, Megan Whalen Turner, and Terry Pratchett. I've read everything Pratchett has ever written, laughing the whole time. I'm very fond of the Casson family books by Hilary McKay. I was thrilled to get my hands on Tamora Pierce's new book, Mastiff, a few months back. In adult fare, I like Alan Bradley's Flavia mysteries, Dorothy Sayers, and space opera by authors such as Elizabeth Moon. Oh, and Lisa Lutz's Spellman books. Those are just a few examples.
I don't see as many picture book fairy tales these days. Why is that?
Hans My Hedgehog is kind of an anomaly because very few picture book retellings of fairy tales are being published right now, after a heyday that took place 20 or so years ago. Many parents want their children to jump into reading chapter books right out of kindergarten. They seem to think that picture books are babyish. This is unfortunate because picture books for children in grades 1-3 can make a wonderful bridge and hook kids into wanting to read more.
Could you talk a little about fairy tale retellings for middle grade and young adult readers?
Even as the picture book fairy tale is showing signs of becoming extinct, novelizations for MG/YA are really taking off. So at least we aren't losing the stories altogether! I would even say that the 1990s and this new century have brought a golden age of fairy tale retellings for older children. For example, consider the incredible variety of Cinderella retellings: you get Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, which famously imagines an explanation for Cinderella's passiveness; you get a lesbian Cinderella tale in Malinda Lo's Ash; and you get a cyborg Cinderella in Marissa Meyer's new book, Cinder. I love seeing what different authors do with the same story bones. The retelling movement is starting to reach beyond European tales more frequently, I am happy to say. Grace Lin's book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, draws on Chinese folklore, and Jasmine Richard's The Book of Wonders uses Scheherazade and Sinbad to create something new. I can't wait to see what happens next.
What advice do you have for someone planning on doing an MG/YA retelling?
The retellings are coming fast and furiously, so as an author, you have to be careful what you choose to retell. A few years ago, I had just about finished a novelization of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," a story I chose because no one had done much with it, when someone else beat me to the punch. Since then, another half dozen versions have come out! I won't even tell you the story I'm tinkering with now. Suffice it to say, it's a lesser known fairy tale.
Whatever you decide to retell, you should work on giving your version a unique spin, the way Meyer did with Cinder, the way Jane Yolen did recently in her Appalachian Snow White retelling, Snow in Summer. It isn't enough to retell a story: you have to make it your own. That's really what Gail Carson Levine did with the Cinderella story. That and her fine characterization are what keep Ella Enchanted in print.