Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins

( 7 )


Thirteen tales are unspun from the deeply familiar, and woven anew into a collection of fairy tales that wind back through time. Acclaimed Irish author Emma Donoghue reveals heroines young and old in unexpected alliances—sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always courageous. Told with luminous voices that shimmer with sensuality and truth, these age-old characters shed their antiquated cloaks to travel a seductive new landscape, radiantly transformed.Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off ...

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Thirteen tales are unspun from the deeply familiar, and woven anew into a collection of fairy tales that wind back through time. Acclaimed Irish author Emma Donoghue reveals heroines young and old in unexpected alliances—sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always courageous. Told with luminous voices that shimmer with sensuality and truth, these age-old characters shed their antiquated cloaks to travel a seductive new landscape, radiantly transformed.Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off with the fairy godmother; Beauty discovers the Beast behind the mask is not so very different from the face she sees in the mirror; Snow White is awakened from slumber by the bittersweet fruit of an unnamed desire. Acclaimed writer Emma Donoghue spins new tales out of old in a magical web of thirteen interconnected stories about power and transformation and choosing one's own path in the world. In these fairy tales, women young and old tell their own stories of love and hate, honor and revenge, passion and deception. Using the intricate patterns and oral rhythms of traditional fairy tales, Emma Donoghue wraps age-old characters in a dazzling new skin.

2000 List of Popular Paperbacks for YA

A collection of thirteen interconnected stories that give old fairy tales a new twist.

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Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Gr 8 UpDonoghue has shaped this collection around several traditional and literary fairy tales. What sets it apart from all the other retold tales is that the heroines realize that they are more interested in the princess, witch, or local farm girl instead of the prince, merchant, or woodsman. Each story is loosely connected to the next by the narrator asking another character how they came to be in a particular situation and the answer, "It is the tale of an apple" (or a handkerchief, hair, a needle, etc.) This device cleverly unites the pieces into a seamless, if lifeless, whole. The female characters, while never really demanding any emotional involvement of readers, are at least complex enough to be neither entirely good nor entirely evil. However, the male characters are all weak, stupid, boorish, or a combination of the three. This one-dimensional treatment makes for very dull reading. Like Francesca Block's work, Donoghue's writing is built on vivid images. Unlike Block, she fails to use that skill to sustain a sense of place or bring a character to life. Though Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Beauty, and others roam through the pages, their voices are dismally similar, with the exception of Gretel, who hasn't mastered speaking in whole sentences, and becomes, by default, the only memorable character in the book. The author must be applauded for wishing to provide teen girls enduring the painful process of coming out with characters who are reassuringly similar. However, even when these protagonists are describing their own treachery, their own fears, or their own sorrows, their emotions never break through the fog of monotone narration.Patricia A. Dollisch, DeKalb County Public Library, Decatur, GA
Kirkus Reviews
Under a surface as seamless as stone worn smooth by the sea are tales readers may know, but with images and perspectives quite different from the canonical tradition.

What if the beast in Beauty and the Beast were a woman? What if the shrill voices ordering Cinderella to work were inside her head? Rapunzel, Donkeyskin, Snow White, and other familiar heroines take unconventional shapes within Donoghue's beautifully hewn prose, in deeply female stories, scented with blood and flowers. Each story is linked to the next by the frame of a question that a character in the previous story asks; Donoghue thus nests the stories in a way that each follows the other to become one long tale. The murkiness of desire and the necessity of finding one's way will resonate for adolescents struggling with issues of identity, sexuality, stepparents, and societal strictures. A dark jewel.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780064407724
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 350,130
  • Age range: 14 years
  • Product dimensions: 4.75 (w) x 8.12 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue is the author of seven novels, including the New York Times bestselling Room. Born in Ireland, she now lives in Canada.

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England and Ontario, Canada
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 24, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      Dublin, Ireland
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English and French, University College Dublin, 1990; Ph.D. in English, University of Cambridge, 1998
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Tale of
The Shoe

Till she came it was all cold.

Ever since my mother died the feather bed felt hard as a stone floor. Every word that came out of my mouth limped away like a toad. Whatever I put on my back now turned to sackcloth and chafed my skin. I heard a knocking in my skull, and kept running to the door,but there was never anyone there. The days passed like dust brushed from my fingers.

I scrubbed and swept because there was nothing else to do. I raked out the hearth with my fingernails, and scoured the floor until my knees bled. I counted grains of rice and divided brown beans from black.

Nobody made me do the things I did, nobody scolded me, nobody punished me but me. The shrill voices were all inside. Do this, do that, you lazy heap of dirt. They knew every question and answer, the voices in my head. Some days they asked why I was still alive. I listened out for my mother, but I couldn't hear her among their clamor.

When everything that could possibly be done was done for the day, the voices faded. I knelt on the hearth and looked into the scarlet cinders until my eyes swam. I was trying to picture a future, I suppose. Some nights I told myself stories to make myself weep, then stroked my own hair till I slept.

Once, out of all the times when I ran to the door and there was nobody there, there was still nobody there, but the stranger was behind me. I thought for a moment she must have come out of the fire. Her eyes had flames in their centers, and her eyebrows were silvered with ash.

The stranger said my back must be tired, and the sweeping could wait. She took me into the garden and showed me a hazeltree I had never seen before. I began to ask questions, but she put her tiny finger over my mouth so we could hear a dove murmuring on the highest branch.

It turned out that she had known my mother, when my mother was alive. She said that was my mother's tree.

How can I begin to describe the transformations? My old dusty self was spun new. This woman sheathed my limbs in blue velvet. I was dancing on points of clear glass.

And then, because I asked, she took me to the ball. Isn't that what girls are meant to ask for?

Her carriage brought me as far as the palace steps. I knew just how I was meant to behave. I smiled ever so prettily when the great doors swung wide to announce me. I refused a canape and kept my belly pulled in. Under the thousand crystal candelabras I danced with ten elderly gentlemen who had nothing to say but did not let that stop them. I answered only, Indeed and Oh yes and Do you think so?

At ten to twelve I came down the steps and she swept me away. Had enough? she asked, lifting a hair off my long glove.

But she was old enough to be my mother, and I was a girl with my fortune to make. The voices were beginning to jabber. They each told me to do something different. Take me back tomorrow night, I said.

So she appeared again just when the soup was boiling over, and took a silver spoon from her pocket to feed me. Our fingers drew pictures in the ashes on the hearth, vague shapes of birds and islands. She showed me the sparkle in my eyes, how wide my skirt could spread, how to waltz without getting dizzy. I was lithe in green satin now; my own mother would not have recognized me.

That night at the ball I got right into the swing of things. I tittered at the old king's jokes; I accepted a single chicken wing and nibbled it daintily. I danced three times with the prince, whose hand wavered in the small of my back. He asked me my favorite color, but I couldn't think of any. He asked me my name, and for a moment I couldn't remember it.

At five to midnight when my feet were starting to ache I waited on the bottom step and she came for me. On the way home I leaned my head on her narrow shoulder and she put one hand over my ear. Had enough? she asked.

But I didn't have to listen to the barking voices to know how the story went: my future was about to happen. Take me back tomorrow night, I said.

So she came for me again just when the small sounds of the mice were getting on my nerves, and she told me they were coachmen to drive us in state. She claimed her little finger was a magic wand, it could do spectacular things. She could always make me laugh.

That night my new skin was red silk, shivering in the breeze. The prince hovered at my elbow like an autumn leaf ready to fall. The musicians played the same tune over and over. I danced like a clockwork ballerina and smiled till my face twisted. I swallowed a little of everything I was offered, then leaned over the balcony and threw it all up again.

I had barely time to wipe my mouth before the prince came to propose.

Out on the steps he led me, under the half-full moon, all very fairy-tale. His long moustaches were beginning to tremble; he seemed like an actor on a creaking stage. As soon as the words began to leak out of his mouth, they formed a cloud in which I could see the future.

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Reading Group Guide


Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue's refreshing collection of fairy tales, offers readers weaned on "happily ever after…" a startling new perspective on age-old tales. In Kissing the Witch, women young and old wander a strange and delightful landscape in search of shelter, power, or their heart's desire. They work, struggle, marry for love or money, lose children or steal them, plot escape or revenge. Above all they tell each other their own stories. The alliances they form are sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always unpredictable. Conjuring the intricate patterns and oral rhythms of traditional fairy tales, Emma Donoghue wraps age-old characters in a dazzling new skin.

Questions For Discussion:

  1. How do fairy tales inform our lives?
  2. In what ways does Emma Donoghue undermine the conventions of the fairy tale?
  3. By weaving all of the tales together, what might the author be trying to say about these women and their stories? About women in general?
  4. In what ways are the women in these stories the same? In what ways different?
  5. How important is homosexuality in these stories? Would you consider this book Gay Literature? Why?
  6. At the end of The Tale of the Rose, the author writes, "And as the years flowed by, some villagers told travelers of a beast and a beauty who lived in the castle… and others told of two beauties, and others, of two beasts." What factors could contribute to these various perceptions? Do you think the beauty and her beast are lovers? Does it matter to the story?
  7. Which of these stories is your favorite? Why? Which best captures the situationof women today?
  8. How are men portrayed throughout the stories? What are their views on women? Does this seem to differ from men's perceptions of women in traditional fairy tales?
  9. Why does the author entitle this book "Kissing the Witch"?
  10. In traditional fairy tales, we know these stories by the names of the women who star in them (Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, etc.). However, Emma Donoghue chooses to name her tales after the inanimate objects in the stories. What relationship do the women have to the objects? What does each object symbolize in these stories?

About The Author:

Emma Donoghue has made a name for herself overseas as the host of a literary talk show on Irish television, and is an established playwright whose work has been performed in Dublin and Cambridge. She is the author of Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668–1801, and the novels Hood and Stir-Fry. She lives in Cambridge, England.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2014

    Donoghue's twist on Fairytales. Minimalist and very focused on s

    Donoghue's twist on Fairytales. Minimalist and very focused on style. Each narration is different, but they bare a similarity in that they tend to be more obtuse than obvious in their telling of their stories. Sometimes the originals were easier to identify than others and sometimes the varied to the point of almost unrecognizable - but that wasn't a big deal. I enjoyed the different takes on the classic fairytales but more so I enjoyed the story for what it said about the women, the relationships, the idealism of some fairytales or the morality of the originals being altered or altogether missing. If you are expecting clearly recognizable variations or long deep views into the story behind the story, you'll be disappointed. But, if like me, you love the sound of language and the piecing together what is said and what isn't and finding meaning in such short, compact stories, then read. She's one of my favorite authors for a reason.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2010

    New Look

    I really enjoyed this book. I read it the first time while I was in high school, and have read it many times since then. It is a quick exciting tale of old stories with a modern twist.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 10, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue What an interesting twist fo

    Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

    What an interesting twist for a fairy tale book. Ms. Donoghue takes traditional fairy tales and spins them over to create new and interesting tales. In her Cinderella version, Cinderella is not interested in marrying her prince; in Beauty and the Beast the beast turns out to be a woman; in Rapunzel, she's blind and does not wish to flee with the prince; in Hansel and Gretel, Gretel is impaired and does not wish to leave the witches' house; in her Snow White version there are no dwarfs and Snow White prefers to go back to her stepmother than to live with her prince. There are also tales I could not recognize, but were delightful just as well.

    In "The bird," a woman marries a prince charming, but finds herself trapped in the relationship and finds solace in an injured bird as she nurses it back to health ans sets it free. In "The handkerchief," a princess and her maid switch places, and the princes prefers to stay as the maid rather than to marry the handsome prince. in "The skin" a queen dies and the king goes mad. As the princess grows, the king thinks she is the queen's virgin reincarnation and courts her daughter. The princess has to flee to a faraway land where she meets a prince, but ends up being alone anyway. In "The needle" an elderly couple is blessed with a beautiful daughter whom they spoil until the daughter grows restless and wonders into a tower where she finds an old woman who teaches her to weave - thus exchanging her life of privilege for a life of weaving. In "The voice" a woman goes to the local witch to exchange her voice for "the love of her life" who ends up abandoning her after he has her way with her. Her sisters exchange their hair for the woman's safe return. In "The kiss" a woman in trying to escape the world and find solace is mistaken by the local village to be the witch and is force to be their psychologist, healer, and their counsel.

    None of the stories have proper names - the characters are "a woman," "a prince," "a king," "a queen", "a witch" and so forth. The tales are told from the third person point of view and they read in less than two hours.

    A fun and easy read.

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  • Posted February 8, 2010

    Interesting take on childhood themes...

    I think that was refreshing to read a book that took the familiar and strayed along a different path. I appreciate the author's style of marrying each story into the next.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2004


    This book was amazing....definetly one of my favorites. I didnt want it to end! I loved every minute of it. . .its so beautiful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2003

    Truly beautiful work

    I thought this book was quite captivating. I loved the imagery and the different spins of the age old characters. It is something every young girl should read, and have her mother explain to her. Something everyone can learn from

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2001

    A grate book of storys

    I loved this book. It was actually a pretty short read, for me anyway. But I guess it mainly was because I could not put this amazing book down. I am a teenager but this book would be grate for anyone to read. But I dont think the old fashined people would like it. Because the storys are totally diffrent from when they were younger, and some people would not want to belive that these storys could really happen. But I think that these days, any of these storys could most likely be true. Or at least come true sometime, even thaw some of these storys are set from a while ago. I also liked how the storys intertwined into one another. I think that was another thing that made this book so good. That also made you want to keep reading so you could find out about the witch. And in the end its very incharesting about all the other people who knew this person and that person. Until finaly you get to the witch and who kissed the witch. I say this is a must read, and I would read any other book by Emma Donoghue any day.

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