More than true – how fairytales defined me

For Cinders Editor Méabh McDonnell, few things have been more influential in her life than her love of fairytales. Here, she looks at why the stories she heard as a child became lodestones for her as and adult, inspiring and empowering her along the way.


A boy and a girl, a glass slipper, and a poison apple, a witch and a king, a curse and a ‘happily ever after’. Everything it takes for the perfect story. But is it really that simple? Is a few well worn ingredients all that it takes to capture our hearts and take these simple stories from childhood to adulthood?

It would certainly seem so. From Disney to sci-fi, fairytales are the stories that follow us around from our earliest bedtimes to modern day adaptations. They are the stories we learn the magic words from: once upon a time… far, far away…and happily ever after.

Everyone has their own relationship with fairytales. For me, fairytales carved me out and spun me into life. They are the first stories that I ever fell in love with.

Fairytales were an ever-present constant throughout my childhood. From the books that my parents would read to me at bedtime, to the movies that I flocked to growing up.

What child of the 90s didn’t have an animated heroine that she secretly hoped to grow up to be?

Fairytales have permeated the soft core inside me, being the first stories that I read on my own. Fairytales represented independence, something I could do by myself. They also represented the kinds of stories I have always loved most, ones that are steeped in imagination. Give me a pumpkin carriage, a cursed spinning wheel and a pair of shoes that will never stop dancing  over gritty reality any day.

I didn’t know the difference between Hans Christen Andersen and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as a child but looking back on the stories, Hans Christen Andersen’s were the ones that appealed to me most. The Tinderbox, The Princess and the Pea and most of all, The Snow Queen, captured my imagination and took me by the hand into another world.

Gerda boldly setting off into the dark to save Kai has  always captivated my secretly adventurous heart. The knives that torture the poor little mermaid’s feet,  were images that stuck with me and followed me around. I can still hear the descriptions of the dogs with ‘eyes as big as saucers’ and the lock of hair the goose girl’s mother gave her before she left home. These are stories that stick like glue and don’t let go.

As I grew older, my interest in fairytales grew stronger. I was fascinated by the scope of the different stories, of their many variations present throughout multiple cultures. I love that you can find the core tales of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast throughout the world, with different beauties, different beasts and other princes, but all have the same core elements of the stories.

The hope and fear that permeates each one. The feelings of inadequacy, and of loneliness that so many of the heroes face throughout their journeys were so familiar to me. And the fact that they must fight it to get to the other side, well, that felt familiar too.

Every time I talk to a stranger, I answer a phone call I’m reluctant to, every time I voice what I’m thinking instead of keeping quiet,  every time that I can bring myself to ask for help, I feel like I’ve lifted my own sword and fought against my very own dragon. I don’t always win, but I try to fight.

And I truly believe that fairytales gave me some of that power.  These are stories that mean more to us than cautionary tales or stories to help children sleep. They have heartbeats throughout history and weave their way into our lives as adults.

Fairytales took me into the deep, dark wood, to the places where I was lonely and lost. But all the while, even though they realised my deepest fears: kidnapping, drowning, predators in the centre of the woods; in a fairytale, the heroine always makes it out the other end. She escapes the woods. She finds friends and she thrives. I never needed a guarantee of happily ever after, but I always wanted to know that, in the words of  fairytale professor, Theodora Goss, ‘this too will pass’. That the woods will reach an end and the moonlight would gather me out.

I was always a little braver entering my own woods because of that. Knowing that the fairytale heroine has to step off of the path to have her adventure always made it a little easier to take those steps myself.

I’d like to think that’s true for other people. Not just me. Fairytales are the best kind of magic.

Because they may not be real. But they are true.



Tells a thousand words – Interview with Karen Vaughan

Fairytales are a central part of our culture, from when we are very young they are some of the first stories that we encounter. The illustrations that accompany them are also some of the first art that we see. The art that has accompanied those tales is distinctive and tells its own story. Karen Vaughen’s beautiful illustrations accompany Tangleweed and Brine, and give a new dimension to the feminist take on these fairytale stories. Méabh McDonnell spoke to Karen about her work as an illustrator, and what it was like to work on the fairy-tale collection.

Consume Or Be Consumed.jpg

1. What made you want to be an illustrator?

I’ve always loved to draw. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t scribbling away on whatever scrap of paper or schoolbook I had in front of me.

I enjoyed making up characters and especially designing their costumes, which is why it’s so weird that illustration as a career didn’t occur to me until I was almost in my mid-twenties.

I had previously studied 3D art and design but hadn’t really done anything with it and was working a desk job that managed to be low paid, stressful and boring all at once. After a particularly difficult week, I decided that I’d had enough and applied for an illustration course I’d seen advertised, and luckily I was accepted. My first week there everything seemed to click and I realised this is what I should’ve been doing with my life.

2. A lot of your work has a sense of whimsy and adventure, have you always been inspired by fantasy?

Absolutely. As a young child I collected the Ladybird fairytale books and as I got older that segued into Hans Christian Andersen’s and The Brother’s Grimm fairytales. I destroyed them all with doodles (I always felt the need to add in my own characters and give all the ladies an extra coat of lipstick and eyeliner). I’m pretty sure at least fifty percent of my childhood consisted of me drawing witches, princesses, and mermaids. I was obsessed.

3. As Tangleweed and Brine is a book of fairy-tales, did you have a favourite fairy-tale growing up?

The Little Mermaid is the first one that comes to mind. I loved the story and when the Disney animation came out I watched the video so often that the tape wore out. I also wrote my own “book” (a fifteen page story scrawled in a copy book) that was a blatant rip-off of The Little Mermaid and demanded that my mam read it while I sat and watched her. And she did, bless her.

4. If you’re illustrating a new project, how do you go about it? Do you make lots of samples and then settle on the illustrations you’re going to complete or do you always know what you want to do when you begin?

I read through the text and highlight anything I think could help shape the look of the characters/setting. Then I begin sketching my ideas down as thumbnails. I try to generate as many compositions as possible before choosing a couple to scale up. After the roughs are whittled down to one by myself and the client the final rough is drawn in pencil (adding in any changes that might have been requested) before I use a lightbox to help me ink the drawing on a separate sheet of paper.

5. What was your first reaction when you read the stories for Tangleweed and Brine? Did you know immediately what you wanted to achieve with the illustrations?

I was blown away by Deirdre’s work. Her writing is gorgeous and powerful and the stories stay with you long after you’ve read them. Stories like Doing Well and The Little Gift haunted me.

I think we knew from the get-go what we were aiming for. Little Island had asked me to be part of the project because they thought the intricacy of my work would be a good fit for Deirdre’s writing. From the first meeting I had with Gráinne Clear, the art director, I was encouraged to incorporate as much detail into the illustrations as I liked which was an absolute treat. There were also notes and suggestions included with each story so I had something to work off of.

6. Your illustrations contain meticulous detail and extensive line work, what is the process that goes into completing them?

For the most part, it’s just (a lot of) drawing with pen and ink with a little clean up in Photoshop afterwards. Sometimes every part of the image has been planned out before I begin inking, right down to the clothing patterns and other times I wing it a little. One of the illustrations Riverbed was actually drawn in three parts and layered together in Photoshop.

“I had a ball creating the characters. I love that the characters all have their own distinct features and body shapes that I can recognise from everyday life”

7. Your illustrations in Tangleweed and Brine made me think of Harry Clarke’s fairytale illustrations and of Arthur Rackham’s too – were they inspirations for you?

I love the work of both but probably my biggest inspiration, in general, is Kay Nielsen. East of the Sun and West of the Moon and In Powder and Crinoline are two of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen.

8. I loved that even though most every drawing contained a woman, they all looked different and had very different features, did you enjoy creating all of those different characters?

I had a ball creating the characters. I love that the characters all have their own distinct features and body shapes that I can recognise from everyday life. We were also conscious of avoiding the ‘beauty equals goodness’ trope that unfortunately is still fairly common.

9. Did you have a favourite image, among all of the illustrations that you did?

I’ve two favourites. Ash Pale because it was the second illustration I created and the one that convinced my anxious brain that maybe I could actually pull off illustrating an entire book. And Come Here and Be Loved because it’s the closest I’ve ever come to realising on paper what exists in my head.

10. Do you have any advice for any budding illustrators?

Draw as much as possible. Try to draw something every day, even if it’s just a scribble. Expose yourself to as much art as possible because you never know what might spark an idea for a project or maybe an entirely different approach to your work. Don’t stress out about nailing down a style, through doodling away in your sketchbooks you will find a way that works for you.


Images first published in Tangleweed and Brine, published by Little Island Books which is  available in all good bookshops.