Yes I am. Ask my mom. Ever since I was five years old I’ve had the same, threefold dream: get a job, become financially independent and get an apartment. Now, at the ripe old age of 22, I have fulfilled my lifelong dream. Ha! And it feels awesome.

Sure, I’ve had other dreams. Ever since I was 12 – which was when I spoke my first words of German – I knew that I wanted to be German professor. But this was a dream which could only be realized after the primary objective was attained: Independence. That was my dream. And now that I’ve got it, my dream has expanded: enjoy it. Protect it.

More than one of my friends has called me a nutcase for being so obsessed with being able to take care of myself by myself. But you see, it’s not my fault. I blame the fairy tales. Specifically Young Adult novels based on fairy tales. Especially those written by Donna Jo Napoli.

Napoli was one of the defining authors of my early years. It was her, Leon Uris, and Charles Dickens (weird, weird mix). And the book which I remember most from that time is Napoli’s excellent Rapunzel-retelling, Zel.

Cover for the Paperback Edition of 'Zel'

This + Exodus + A Tale of Two Cities = 10 Year Old Me

I have a very clear memory of reading this book. I was in my elementary school’s library, which was purple, and had hulking green Apple computers. Mrs. Leighton, the librarian, came up to me and recommended the book. It had just come out year or two earlier. She said it was a bit “mature,” but that it was a great twist on a classic fairy tale.

And it is. Napoli retells Rapunzel with great power. Each of the three main characters – Zel, her mother (the witch), and Konrad the “prince” – all get to speak. The story is told all in present tense. Twelve years after reading this book, I can still remember some of it verbatim…almost at the very end, with the witch helpless as Zel leaves her:

I touch the world; I have no powers anymore. I see as though through a goose’s eyes.

Gooses recur throughout the novel, actually, one of the few pieces of description in Napoli’s otherwise sparse prose. This style actually serves the book well; her rigid prose helps keep the novel tense, present, moving.

Anyway, the novel is driven by two things: Zel’s mother’s fear of loneliness and Konrad’s sexual hunger. Yes, the book contains sex. Yes, I knew this as a ten year old, but in a vague sort of way. Napoli capitalized on existing sexual metaphors in the original fairy tale, such as hair and eating, and worked them into the story’s fabric without my ten-year-old-self knowing. Though I did catch the actual sex part. But then again, it was way less graphic than some of the stuff my cousins watched on TV. So there’s that.

The point is, my ten-year-old-self absorbed something from that story which solidified an already extant tendency in my nature. Zel‘s evil character was defined by her inability to let go. She couldn’t let her daughter leave, so she locked her up in a tower. And Zel, her issue was that she had no idea how to break free for herself. Konrad was only half a solution. Girl, if you want to have a real life – Napoli seemed to be saying to me – you’ve got to break out of that tower and make it for yourself. Take risks! You’ll do some weird stuff, to be sure, and you’ll make mistakes, but at least they’ll be your *own* mistakes.

Own mistakes! Excellent. If I ever have a ten year old, I intend to tell her to make her own mistakes and own those mistakes. It sure worked for me. Immediately my “Operation Apartment” dream was born; Zel’s problem, it seemed to me, was all about location. She was stuck in that tower. This obviously happened because she had no stronghold of her own. Get own stronghold and be safe from marauding witches.

Cunning plan.

I find that Young Adult fantasy novels – that are not Twilight – do a good job in general of promoting independence. Think about it. They are usually about young protagonists confronting some problem in the world by themselves and prevailing. I am thinking specifically of anything ever written by Jane Yolen, who specializes in excellent female protagonists, and often does fairy tale adaptations, such as Briar Rose. The recent work of Sarah Rees Brennan is also very promising, though it doesn’t touch on fairy tales. These are stories about independence, doing it yourself, standing up against the demons and monsters and kicking some serious ass.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that novels like these aren’t really for children; they are too violent, or have too much sexual innuendo, or what have you. Basically, the same objections that people still have against the Brothers Grimm. But if the goal is teaching young readers to think for themselves, then they have to be exposed to this kind of work. Even if they don’t like it…that’s great! Developing one’s own taste is part of becoming independent. How are children supposed to figure out what they like and don’t like if they are only exposed to the Sunshine-And-Kitties side of children’s literature?

Not that I’m anti sunshine or anti kitten. I’m merely pro-independence.

Of course, then I really should start practicing what I preach. I’ve got to study more Vietnamese. My daily struggles with the language put a bit of a damper on my independence. Darn it all. Independence isn’t independence if you can’t understand what strangers are shouting at you on the street.

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