Jennifer Donnelly is the author of the new young adult novel Poisoned, a reimagining of the Snow White story. Her many other books include the YA novel Stepsister. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley.
Q: Why did you decide to write a new version of Snow White?
A: Poisoned is many things, but above all, it’s a plea for kindness – and that’s one of the main reasons why I wrote it. The evil queen in the story, Snow White’s stepmother, is ruthless and cruel, and I wanted to know how we can defeat cruelty. Not just in a story setting, but in our lives, in the larger world.
Sophie, my Snow White character, showed me that we vanquish it not with more viciousness, not with more violence, but with kindness.
Sophie is a kind, gentle girl, but kindness isn’t valued by her stepmother, or her court. The queen sees kindness as weakness, and tells Sophie so. But I believe that kind people are actually very strong. Treating others with kindness isn’t always easy. It sometimes calls for us to dig deeply into our reserves of maturity, insight, and compassion.
Sophie showed me that far from being a sign of weakness, kindness often requires tremendous bravery and selflessness.
Q: In your acknowledgments, you write, "Those Grimm brothers, they don't pull any punches." What do you see as the most important aspects of the original Snow White story?
A: In the Grimms’ version, the queen orders her huntsman to cut out Snow White’s heart. That image of evil literally tearing the heart out of goodness is the crux of the story to me. How do we fortify ourselves against the corrosive effects of cruelty – whether they are leveled through words or deeds? Is it better to try to protect a battered heart or to leave it wide open to weather more hurt?
After the queen gives her huntsman her dire command, Sophie has a decision to make – hide, keep her head down and acquiesce to her stepmother’s brutal reign, or use the things that are “wrong” about her – her kindness, her good heart – to resist the queen and fight for what’s right.
Another important aspect is the inevitability of making mistakes, of failure. There’s so much pressure on young people to present a perfect, polished front and I think it’s very destructive. Sophie isn’t perfect or polished, far from it. She makes a lot of mistakes, she trusts the wrong people, she needs saving from time to time – because she’s human and we humans are fallible.
But she doesn’t quit. She comes back from her failures. She learns and grows. The space to fail is so important for young adults to have, and I really hope my story inspires them to step into that space, to not fear it, and to accept time spent there as part of the journey to success.
Q: Can you discuss what you decided to add to the original story, and why?
A: One of the biggest things I added is the evil queen’s backstory. I’ve always been fascinated by her. I never quite bought that she spent so much time gazing into her mirror, and always wanted to know if “Mirror, mirror on the wall, Who’s the fairest of them all?” was really what she asked her looking glass.
Most of all, I wanted to know what had happened to this woman to make her so cruel. With the help of her loyal huntsman, who narrates much of the book – even though he’s dead – I found the answers to my questions.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: Poisoned takes a hard look at the effect that poisonous words have on us – how they can really rip out our hearts. What I hope readers will take away from the story is that they can choose to not listen to them, to not internalize them, to not believe them. They have that power; they really do.
I want my young readers to know that just because someone tries to hand you a poisoned apple, it doesn’t mean you have to take it. Refuse it. You have that power.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a third fairy tale retelling and starting to research a new historical novel as well. They’re both very new, so I can’t say much about either yet, but I’m super excited to share them with readers soon!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Would just love to say a big Thank You! to my readers for their incredible support for my journey into the fairy tale realm. They’ve embraced Isabelle from Stepsister and have really taken her into their hearts, and I hope they come to love Sophie, from Poisoned, just as much!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jennifer Donnelly.