Like so many little girls, Christopher Healy’s daughter went through a “heavy princess phase” a few years back. Healy, then a freelance magazine writer, discussed what he termed parental “princess fatigue” in an essay for Salon.com. And while he would often commiserate with other parents who were troubled by archetypical images of passive princesses, he was also perturbed by the vacuous nature of Prince Charming in fairy tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. “He’s so inconsequential,” Healy says. “He’s presented as the ideal man, but he has no personality.” If princesses are going to fall in love with princes, he continues, then “shouldn’t we care about who these men are?”
That question got Healy thinking about refashioning Prince Charming and turning him into a “real person,” faults and all. And when it came time to choose a Prince Charming for the literary makeover, he thought: why not put all of them in the story?
That story eventually became The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (HarperCollins/Walden Pond Press), a debut middle-grade jaunt that features a cast of idiosyncratic characters and turns fairy-tale conventions on their heads. The author, who says his work has been heavily influenced by comics, mysteries, The Lord of the Rings, and Winnie-the-Pooh, looked to his own love of humor as well as the very strong opinions of his now 10-year-old daughter throughout the writing process. “I feel comfortable trying to be funny,” he says. “So I wrote a book that I found funny.”
The Hero’s Guide is filled with characters who defy the gender stereotypes that are often a mainstay of fairy tales, among them a nasty and vindictive Sleeping Beauty and a Prince Charming (one of four in the book) who is terrified of everything. Healy was resistant to streamlining his story toward a gender-specific audience; happily, he ended up with a publishing team behind him that, he says, fully grasped the vision. Jordan Brown at Walden Pond Press purchased The Hero’s Guide in 2011 in a three-book pre-empt. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with Jordan Brown in which we didn’t laugh,” Healy says. “Bouncing ideas back and forth with him is just plain fun.” Of his agent, Cheryl Pientka of Jill Grinberg Literary, he says, “I trust her implicitly. I know she’s got my back through everything.”
Because Healy is a very visual writer (“I see everything in storyboard form,” he says), he had hoped that the book would eventually contain graphics. Healy crafted a map of the kingdom, drew pictures of the characters, and, feeling like “a general planning a military strike,” would often stage scenes in the book by maneuvering paper figures. Naturally, he was delighted when his publisher enthusiastically elected to include illustrations. Healy considers his collaboration with Todd Harris—himself a debut illustrator—a huge asset to the book. Though they haven’t yet met in person, Healy says Harris’s illustrations of the characters actually resembled Healy’s own early sketches. In fact, Healy was so taken with some of Harris’s visual details that he returned to the text and wrote them into the story.
What’s next for the author? Now writing fiction full-time, he’s polishing up the second book in the series, called The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, which comes out next May; the sequel will feature the same cast of characters, joined by some new ones. As the quest for heroism continues on page, a big-screen adventure may be on the horizon: film rights to The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom has been bought by Twentieth Century Fox Animation.
Healy says on reflection that seeing others interpret his characters can be a bit “surreal,” but it’s also deeply rewarding. Local actors performed a live reading from the book during his launch at Words Bookstore in Maplewood, N.J. “I didn’t direct them; I let them do their own thing and they were great,” Healy says. He also enjoyed listening to the audiobook reading by Bronson Pinchot. “So many of the voices he used were nothing like what I’d heard mentally, but they were fabulous,” he says. “And it made me feel ready to accept even more interpretations of my characters as they may come along.”