Historian and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of 20 books for adults, including Men Explain Things to Me, The Mother of All Questions, and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. The latter earned Solnit a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award. Her work has addressed topics including feminism, Western and Indigenous history, social change, and more. In her children’s book debut, Cinderella Liberator, Solnit puts a modern spin on the rags-to-riches fairy tale, offering alternatives to restrictive gender roles and the happily-ever-after marriage. In a nod to the fable’s earlier incarnations, her text is paired with silhouette illustrations by artist Arthur Rackham, which first appeared in the 1919 edition of Cinderella written by C.S. Evans. We spoke with Solnit about transforming old tales for new readers, including her young relatives, and the joys of liberation.

The story of “Cinderella” has of course been told across many time periods and cultures. Do you recall your earliest exposure to the fairy tale?

I think I’m probably like a lot of other women in that I can’t remember a pre-“Cinderella” existence or a first “Cinderella.” It feels like the glass slippers, the pumpkin coach, the fairy godmother, and all that stuff are just things that I always knew.

What drew you to rewrite this particular tale at this particular time?

Two things, one of which is I am the great-aunt of a lovely person named Ella. And the other, which I wrote about in the afterword, is I found a picture of Cinderella for sale in my public library’s bookshop. When I turned it over, it had this wonderful passage where the fairy godmother has just turned the mice into coach horses and then asks, “What shall we do for a coachman?” And Cinderella says, “I will get the rat trap.” It’s such a resonant exchange for me because, first, it makes Cinderella an active participant in this transformative process. And, second, it makes it sound like an improvisation, that they’re making things out of other things together. I thought, “Wow. This is actually a story about transformation, not a story about landing a prince, necessarily.”

I liked the pictures so much, I decided to rewrite the story for Ella. I started looking around and I found the Arthur Rackham pictures. I was just going to make a kind of desktop-publishing book and print it off of my laser printer. But I felt like it had come out pretty well, so I sent it to Frances Coady, my agent. And now it’s a Haymarket book.

On a personal level, Cinderella Liberator marks a transformation of your own, both in terms of genre—nonfiction to fiction—and audience—adult to children’s. What inspired that shift as a writer, and how did you navigate it?

It really isn’t one because I’m an aunt to what feels like a very large number of people, and a great-aunt, and I’ve written things that didn’t necessarily turn out quite as well. The last thing I wrote, which will never be published, was a story of nonsense rhymes for my godson. We had a lot of fun playing and shouting words that we made up, and it really stuck for him. So I made a kind of bedtime story with the words. And I’ve done books for my great-nephew and nephews. It felt like this was taking something I’ve been doing for several years and just going public with it. The Rackham images were a kind of tipping point for me because, whatever I did in the story, the images were more than publishing ready: they’ve been in print for a century.

You mentioned that the idea for this book began at the library. What kind of research did you do?

I really didn’t. What I did do was look at the Arthur Rackham images extensively, which was a huge pleasure. I love his work, and he did a Cinderella with C.S. Evans in 1919. One of the joys of this project is that we’re now retooling the illustrations for their centennial. There’s also a website called SurLaLune, where I looked at the conventions of the fairytale. But it is such an entrenched story. I was trying to figure out how to get away from a story from that era where marriage was a woman’s destiny—kind of like Pride and Prejudice. Even when I was young, there was this idea that landing a man was going to be your big career move. But now, most women work for a living or will work for a living, and I think half of American marriages end in divorce. Marriage is not destiny, as it was.

The core of fairy tales, which I also wrote about a lot in The Faraway Nearby, is this very tough business of finding out who you’re meant to be and how to liberate yourself from whatever it is that prevents you from being that person. They often have these fantastic trappings, which people sometimes mistake for the essence of the story. But the essence is often the struggling and negotiating of these active characters—an allegorical version of what every young person has to do to invent themself.

I wanted to keep the sense of transformation, the Rackham pictures, and to unload the idea of dainty feet and being discovered by the prince and being elevated in your social status. Though I wrote it before the Trump crises of unaccompanied refugee children, it also felt like a very contemporary story about all the kids who are in different ways neglected, abandoned, and forced to look out for themselves—kids in foster care and who otherwise aren’t being well cared for, and the refugee kids who we’ve now heard so much about, who were taken away from their parents.

Given the story’s timeliness, in what ways do the Rackham images, those vintage silhouettes, complement your retelling?

For the most part they did. One of the things I love about them is that Cinderella feels very capable and industrious. You see her mopping and sweeping and ironing and running; she seems to have a lot of physical vitality to move through the world. That helped me recognize there is a kind of pathos in the privilege of the stepsisters, marooned and waiting to engage in upward mobility. But Cinderella is also in rags, and I mentioned foster kids, refugee children, and those separated from their parents. I also think of homeless kids, [who have been so visible] here in San Francisco that one of the local middle schools has started opening its gym at night for homeless families.

There were things in the pictures we didn’t love and that we tried to steer around; we didn’t use every image. One of the things that bugged me about them—and it’s true of Hollywood movies as well as a lot of fairy tales—was the equation of being good with being beautiful, and being bad with being funny looking. Those images [of the stepsisters] by Rackham had a certain glibness. We all know plenty of beautiful people who don’t have high moral standing—not to even touch upon the Kardashians! I wanted very purposefully not to make that equation. The stepsisters are also children or adolescents, and I didn’t want to blame them for the situation that was created around them.

I asked myself, “If this was a story of transformation, what were the transformations for?” They were for liberation. The big liberation in the original story is how Cinderella gets out of servitude among people who don’t value her. And I felt, let’s just keep going with this liberation project. It was really satisfying to let the stepsisters find meaningful things to do and a kind of redemption—to let whatever breach had opened up through their mother’s intentions and directions be resolved in friendship. It was also fun to see the prince as somebody who needed to be liberated.

And work, specifically meaningful work, plays a key role in that liberation. Could you speak about how you see it unlocking your characters’ transformations, and how that relates to modern women?

Everybody needs meaningful work to do, and I think it’s hard to find. Even though it’s a kids’ fairy tale, I could tie it into books of mine like A Paradise Built in Hell, where I write about the real joy you encounter in people talking about what happened to them in 9/11, what happened to them in the 1906 earthquake, and a lot of things in between. They found a sense of community and purpose in meaningful work that were often missing from the disaster of everyday life. Human beings need purpose. What’s been held up as an ideal, of indolent luxury, is actually oppressing as a condition. Most of us will work for a living, and finding work that feeds your soul and connects you to things that matter, speaking as someone who lives in Silicon Valley, is a challenge. “What am I going to do and will it matter?” There’s often among rich and famous people a kind of isolation: they can’t go out and do normal things. Thinking about a prince as a real person, it wasn’t hard to imagine a sense of being trapped and confined and limited.

Going back to your great-niece Ella, to whom the book is dedicated—

And her little sister!

Have you shared the book with them yet?

I showed Ella the galleys. She just turned five. But I think it will have to be a book-shaped book [for them to appreciate it]. There are a lot of rules about writing a children’s book, in terms of the prose, which I suspect I violated. I’m not sure what level it’s pitched at. One of the things I was joking about while I was writing is that kids don’t actually buy books. I suspect in part because the pictures are so great, people may buy this for older kids or for people who are not kids.

The first person to read it was my friend Ana Teresa Fernández, the artist whose images are in Men Explain Things to Me, also with Haymarket, and the beginning of The Far Away Nearby. She made Cinderella’s shoes out of ice and wore them until they melted, as a kind of way of breaking out of the fairy tale and its confinements. It was an extraordinary performance piece that was videoed. She read the book to her boyfriend and they loved it, and he immediately wanted to send it to his nieces. Here were two people in their 30s reading the story. It’s interesting, that question, “Who is the audience? Who is it for?” I love kids’ books and fables and fairy tales, and I suspect of all the things I’ve written it’s my partner’s favorite book. It is for Ella, when she wants to engage with it. We’ll find out. I’ll bring it as soon as I have the bound copies.

What do you hope readers, in general, will take away from this adaptation—is there a moral to your fairy tale revision?

I think there are a lot of them, including the idea that sometimes we have the capacity to transform ourselves and others, and to engage in this process of liberation. One of the things I had the most fun writing, at the beginning of the book, is the scene when the stepsisters are getting ready for the ball. I grew up with a sense that, unless you were the most beautiful woman, you weren’t beautiful enough. I got to write that there is no most-beautiful woman or person, because it’s in the eyes of the beholder. And when you really love someone, they look beautiful; you forget what they look like. I was trying to get away from the beauty trap and the princess trap. That idea of liberation is all through the book. It’s not exactly a moral, because a moral feels like it’s full of shoulds. I think an invitation is the opposite of a moral: “Maybe you can do this.”

It really all stems from that wonderful sense of collaborative liberation of Cinderella and her fairy godmother transforming the animals. In some ways, it’s a hilariously modern fairy tale. I decided that what the mice and rats and lizards wanted also mattered. I also mention in the afterword that the Buddhist saying “the liberation of all beings” is one of my favorite phrases. It feels like it’s subsumed human rights work, environmental work, and feminism. I asked myself, “How do you tell the Cinderella story from that perspective?”

I’ve now heard from a lot of people that they want to read fairy tales to their kids, but they don’t want to pass down unwanted baggage about women’s roles. How do we give children fairy tales that reflect who we are and who we want to be and what our lives look like now? As Cinderella Liberator shifted from something that was written for one kid to something that would be going out into the world, I became aware of this tremendous appetite for stories that don’t put us back into what we’ve tried to liberate ourselves from. I buy a lot of kids’ books myself today, and that’s something that I’m always interested in.

Can you share what you are working on now?

I’m writing a memoir for Viking. It’s a feminist memoir about misogyny, but also about becoming a writer and having a voice—a lot of people prefer that young women not have one. I suppose there’s a bit of fairy tale to it. Now I’m trying to think, are there any books of mine that don’t have some fairy tale to them? From the atlases to A Field Guide to Getting Lost to The Faraway Nearby, I think that fairy tales have a secret presence all through.

I’m also working on another anthology of political essays that will be out in the fall, called Whose Story Is This? It’s looking at who we center stories on. Do we tell the story of #MeToo about how it makes men less comfortable, or about how it makes women more so? Do we tell the story of refugees in terms of how it makes them feel, or how it makes people who are already here feel? It also has essays on the Kavanaugh hearings and a lot of other political events over the last couple of years.

And can we expect any more children’s books from you?

Oh, yeah! I will never stop being an aunt, great-aunt, and godmother. There’s another children’s book planned, which I won’t talk about yet. I just have to disentangle myself from what feels like several other books and get to it. That will probably be for Ella’s little sister Maya.

Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit, illus. by Arthur Rackham. Haymarket, $17.95 May 7 ISBN 978-1-608-46596-5