Poisoned Apples by Christine Heppermann: A Review

Poisoned Apples

Cruelties come not just from wicked stepmothers, but also from ourselves. There are expectations, pressures, judgment, and criticism. Self-doubt and self-confidence. But there are also friends, and sisters, and a whole hell of a lot of power there for the taking. In fifty poems, Christine Heppermann confronts society head on. Using fairy tale characters and tropes, Poisoned Apples explores how girls are taught to think about themselves, their bodies, and their friends. The poems range from contemporary retellings to first-person accounts set within the original tales, and from deadly funny to deadly serious. – [X]

I usually tend to roll my eyes at the blurbs that are chosen for certain, but boy did Lockhart get it right. If Christine Heppermann’s Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty could have been described using only three words, “caustic, funny, and heartbreaking” would be the most accurate choices. So, I guess, firstly, congratulations are in order for having picked the best blurb to go on the cover. Secondly, I need to geek out about the opening pages, I mean, I just, look!Processed with VSCOcam with b5 preset

Now, to the actual review part of the review. Poisoned Apples may be a slim volume of poetry, but it is quite a complex book. It is a collection that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. I would like to call it magic realism, but somehow that is much too mundane a category for a book as special as this one. Poisoned Apples may refer heavily to well-known (and quite beloved) fairytales, but it also focuses on the grimy realities of the characters entrenched in these fantastical tales:

It used to be just the one,

but now all mirrors chatter.

In fact, every reflective surface has opinions

on the shape of my nose, the size

of my chest, the hair I wash and brush

until it’s so shiny I can see myself

scribbling notes as each strand

recommends improvements.

– Page 5, “The Wicked Queen’s Legacy”

And yes, although Heppermann writes of the trials and tribulations of women through the ages and across the worlds, the quality of whimsy that is particular to these old tales are not erased in her retellings:

Even before I found the globe in his study

and realized that this endless land

is really just a few stray crusts drifting

through the blue, my world had shrunk

to the size of my tender new feet …

– Page 60, “The Little Mermaid”

One of the things I found interesting about this book was the focus on body issues and eating disorders. If I remember correctly, fairytales themselves do not dedicate much of the narrative to defining words like “fair” and “beautiful”. In fact, they don’t spare much detail to most anything- it is their nature to be succinct and engaging. However, almost every recent adaptation of the renowned oral tales assume some rather narrow definitions of beauty. Heppermann engages with these definitions head-on, sometimes from the perspective of characters, sometimes from the perspective of readers/viewers, sometimes with humour, sometimes with horror, but always with truth and humanity:

Now she is building herself out of straw

as light as the needle swimming in her bathroom scale.

The smaller the number, the closer to gold,

the tighter her face, afire with the zeal of a wolf

who has one house left to destroy.

– Page 28, “Blow Your House In”

Another thing I found interesting was the way that the images worked alongside the poetry. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but combined with the intricacies of poetry and … well, a small book of a 100 or so pages may take you all weekend to peruse. For instance, the image that goes along with “The Wicked Queen’s Legacy” is a simple yet powerful one of a woman observing her own reflection:

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I don’t think all the photographs in the book are meant to compliment the text the way that they are meant to do in picturebooks, but some of them (like the one I posted above) work pretty well together. Some of them, on the other hand, have their own stories to tell:

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I am not sure what the criteria was for picking the photographs that made it into the book, but I liked them. The photographs matched the tone of the writing perfectly and between the two mediums you get this wonderful experience of stepping between the narratives of reality and fantasy and being able to see both sides with painful, beautiful clarity.

I don’t think I can fit all my thoughts and praises into one post, especially with the variety of poems we get in this collection, so instead I will leave you with my favourite poem:

What You May Like About This One: Fairytales, feminism, incredible photography, and poetry that is at once gritty and magical.

What You May Not Like About This One: I am not actually sure. Like I said, it could use some more diversity (sexuality/gender in particular), but then again most books could use that. Hmm. Perhaps you are afraid of poetry? I urge you to give it a shot anyway.

6 responses to “Poisoned Apples by Christine Heppermann: A Review

  1. Wow! What an incredible depiction of the things we are told as young people. I remember worrying about my weight at 7 years old. I was afraid to make friends because I thought I was ugly. But by the time I was an older teenager, I figured out I was being deceived by the media and peers. I love the fairy tale aspect because it helps make the book more fun and different. :)

    • Seven years old is a very young age to start worrying about your appearance. It must have been really rough- I hope you’re doing better now! *hug*
      I love the fairy tale aspect of the story too. And the ages of the voices are not always revealed so it is interesting to think about how the issue of body image is one that people wrestle with at various points of their lives. It’s a very cleverly done collection, for sure. <3

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