Amy Kean reimagines the fairytale for the modern age

Amy Kean reimagines the fairytale for the modern age

The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks is a strongly illustrated riotous fairytale for the modern age, following young Elodie-Rose on the day she decides to change the world and "keep all her fucks in her basket".

Crowdfunded through Unbound in 20 days, The Little Girl... proves the public's appetite for "feminist" revisions of fairytales—think Louise O'Neill's "Little Mermaid" retelling The Surface Breaks and Nikita Gill's Fierce Fairytales—continues to go from strength to strength.

We spoke to author Amy Kean about the inspirations behind the title, her experience of crowdfunding and the rise of feminist activisim in literature of late.

What inspired The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks
I wrote it as a handbook for me and my younger self. I wish something similar had existed when I was growing up! And little girls have it even tougher, these days. They can read this book whilst sucking on an appetite suppressant lollipop.

When I began writing it I was living in Singapore, woke up one random day and realised that for a variety of professional and personal reasons I’d run out of confidence. BAM. Gone. Nada left. I was over-analysing everything, second-guessing my actions and essentially making myself sick with worry. I got a confidence coach, tried hypnotism to help me care less, none of it worked. I hypothesised that if I wrote a book about giving zero fucks and put it out there, then surely I’d have to do it myself. It worked, for the most part!

Once I started writing it and telling friends about the story I saw how painfully universal this is, how many people deal with feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, giving way too many fucks, and was sure it could help a lot of people, especially women.

Can you tell us a bit about Elodie Rose, the little girl at the heart of the novel?
The lovely Elodie-Rose is a perfect combination of my three favourite people: my nieces, who are aged four, nine and fifteen. Each one of them is interesting, intelligent, hilarious, curious, brave… but they have such different personalities, which is wonderful. My biggest pet peeve is when women won’t allow other women to be themselves; we’re raised to judge and vocalise that judgement, to somehow make ourselves feel better. How grim.

Elodie-Rose is who my nieces are now and who I hope for them to be as time passes. My brief to Jem [Milton], the illustrator, was to create "a loveable, flawed, dystopian Milly Molly Mandy". She immediately created a work of art, first time. In fact, there were hardly any changes that needed to be made from Jem’s very first drawings.

What impact are you hoping the book will have on its readers?
I hope it encourages girls to be brave enough to have any personality they fancy; to be themselves, however that may manifest itself. To normalise giving zero fucks, making it feel less like an act of rebellion. Society struggles with woman and image, even now. There’s a handful of templates we’re supposed to follow, and if you don’t adhere you get called weird or strange or you’re seen as undesirable. Men have this problem too, of course, but also are celebrated more for having ‘eccentric’ personalities.

Women should encourage each other to thrive as individuals and not yearn for cliques. A whole chunk of the book is about how women can bully each other, enhancing each other’s insecurities from an early age. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, we compete less for professional accomplishments, which could be a positive thing, and instead fight for the attention and approval of men, which is a toxic throwback to the Stone Age. 53% of white women in the US voted for Donald Trump, for heaven’s sake. Something’s wrong, here! I truly believe if we want feminism to thrive past this fourth wave we need more introspection and to analyse our own behaviours.

I also hope the title will prompt people to reassess their approach to language and what they believe girls should and should not say. Is the word ‘fuck’ that offensive, really? Did you know the word ‘fuck’ was first created by 16th century German monks to describe the unsavoury behaviours of other monks? What’s more offensive is when girls use the word ugly, or stupid, or fat, or slag.

© J. Milton

What are your thoughts on the fairytale genre? Are fairytales inherently un-feminist?
The childless hag who eats children? The sleeping teen who gets sexually assaulted by a stranger? The angry, twisted stepmother who’s lost her beauty? The two ugly sisters? The mermaid who has her vocal chords ripped out to get a man? Yeah, I reckon they’re pretty un-feminist. In most olden fairy tales, the female characters are either beautiful and simple, or complicated and evil. Fairy tales hate women. They actively warned women not to be anything but submissive and youthful. Short magical stories, however, I love!

With the #MeToo movement and the Women’s marches, there’s been a groundswell of feminist activism in recent times. How does your book fit into our current political and cultural climate?
Little girls should be good and enjoy boys’ affections,
Who don’t like it when given a taste of rejection.

That’s a quote from the book. There’s a part in The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks that discusses the privilege and sense of entitlement men have: we witness an interaction between Elodie-Rose and a demanding young boy who doesn’t like being told ‘no’ after he grabs her arm. We’ve all been there.

#MeToo has done wonderful things, and will go down in history as a momentous movement. It’s quantified and socialised the issue, and brought conversations we’ve had in private for centuries out into the open. I hope that The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks reinforces how ridiculous it is for women to live their lives appeasing men, fearing the consequences of saying no. Hopefully the book offers a solution to that, too.  An alternative.

Why did you choose the picturebook format and how did you come across your illustrator J. Milton?
The topics I cover in The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks are serious. We touch on bullying, harassment, eating disorders, anxiety – stuff girls deal with every day that I have experience of, making it very personal. But despite the weighty themes, I wanted to write about them in an unexpected way, make it light in tone – almost excessively, add humour (which women have in abundance) and play around with storytelling techniques, without being preachy. I wanted to turn an average day in the life of a young girl into a fairytale, but a new kind of fairytale where the girl wins without the help of a prince.

Jem is the best thing that ever happened to this book, and was introduced to me by a friend who read the original text and immediately said, "yep, I know the perfect illustrator for this." My friend was right: Jem got it instantly and didn’t just create visuals to accompany the words but enhanced the story, making it funnier than I’d ever imagined. I’m in awe.

Are there any authors/books that have had a particular influence on you and your work?
Roald Dahl and Judy Blume. You never forget the authors who made an impact on your childhood, and I loved them both, reading their books religiously well into my late teens. Such unforgettable storytellers who had a brilliant way of creating a hero you root for and an unequivocal enemy displaying very real human behaviours. Judy Blume’s Blubber - about bullying and weight - is the first book that made me want to write stories and even though it was published in 1974, the content still applies today.

Why did you choose to publish your book with Unbound?
When I finally had the finished product, fully illustrated, I sent it to loads of literary agents in the UK. Agents who worked with illustrated books, female fiction, young adult… a tonne. Every time I got the same response: "it’s entertaining and I like it, but I just can’t see how this will sell, and be accepted by a mainstream audience." I got a apologies from some for their "conservative outlook". But I’ve worked in advertising for 15 years! I know what people like, and was so sure the story would resonate, because it came from such an honest place. That’s why I persevered, and thank heavens I did, because already I’m getting messages from people saying how it’s done them good.

What was your experience of crowdfunding?
It took twenty days for me to reach my target, and I didn’t sleep for most of that. I was in Cambodia for a third of the time, teaching poetry at a secondary school, which added to the pressure, a bit. The crowdfunding process is both gut-wrenching and heart-warming at the same time; there’s nothing like it.

Some Unbound followers have these huge, amazing online followings they can tap into to get the funding done quick. I already had an OK profile in my industry but had to build up external interest at pace, after launch. I was determined to get it funded fast, for my own sense of pride more than anything, so came up with a relentless content and PR plan and put myself out there as much as possible, sent the digital version to bloggers, that kind of thing. It helps that I used to work in PR, and that the name of the book is PR’able in and of itself.

It’s not easy. You want to create a sense of urgency but don’t want to beg. Some people you expect to buy it won’t, and others who you never thought would care totally surprise you. I met and made friends with so many new people during crowdfunding, who loved the message, and we’ve chatted ever since.

© J. Milton

Ten percent of the proceeds are being donated to the charity Writing Through – can you tell us a bit about the work they do and how you became involved?
I started working with Writing Through when I was living in Singapore: they promoted themselves via a link on one of those hideous ex-pat Facebook groups but I could see immediately how they’re different. Writing Through isn’t a charitable organisation that’s all about virtue signalling, it fills a real gap that exists in some education systems.

They help young people and women in Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam to build up confidence and conceptual thought through creative writing, running week-long workshops that complement their studies, and wider lives. They can try brainstorming, write poems and short stories, and practice public speaking. Everyone that works with Writing Through has training, shadows experienced volunteers and gets formal approval before running workshops themselves. The founder, Sue, has been a writer all her life and has a unique talent for inspiring everyone she meets. Now I’m back home I can only manage the occasional trip back to run sessions, but it made perfect sense for profits from this book to go towards helping Sue grow the charity.

Finally, are you working on anything new at the moment?
As soon as this book is out (1st November) I’m going to start work on Zero Fucks: The Musical! I’m confident I have enough music theory and practice training to be able to pull it off… maybe… I’m buying myself a piano for Christmas and again, if I put my intention out there into the universe like this, then I have to do it!

I’ve also just finished a novel that I’m in the final stages of proofing, set in Kenya, where I spent some time about five years ago. I’m calling it an anti-Eat Pray Love, set against a very uncomfortable, morally dubious backdrop, forged by unethical money-grabbing Brits. It’s intended to be a comedy, but I hope it also ruffles a few feathers!

The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks will be published by Unbound on Thursday 1st November, priced at £9.99.