Sandhya Menon is the bestselling author of several YA romance novels with lots of kissing, girl power, and swoony boys. Her Dimpleverse series was adapted into a popular TV show with Netflix India. Here, Menon reflects on the fairy tales that captured her imagination as a young reader and continue to inspire her as a writer, and her commitment to giving diverse characters happily-ever-afters.
I was a weird kid.
When my better adjusted peers were climbing onto kitchen counters to steal cookies, I was climbing onto the counters to scrawl bits of poetry and odd little stories onto the insides of my parents’ expensive kitchen cabinets. My mother would reach in for, say, coffee, only to see a cryptic and slightly ominous message in a child’s psychopathic scrawl that said something like, “In her desk she found only the heads of monsters. And then she kissed the boy.”
Needless to say, my parents spent much of my childhood worrying.
Still, when it became clear that this writing thing was not going away anytime soon, they bought me my own set of story notebooks and pencils. I was enthralled. For the first time, I felt like a real writer. And what do real writers do? They plagiarize, of course! (Just kidding, people. Never plagiarize. But also, try telling my id-driven seven-year-old self that.)
I immediately began looking around me to see what kinds of stories other writers were telling, writers whom I hoped to emulate and thus become a renowned success, the only second grader to ever win the Pulitzer. Soon, my attention was grasped by the classic cartoon fairytales I loved to watch. I loved to watch them so much, in fact, that my parents had also bought me the chapter book versions of “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” among others.
I eagerly flipped open these books to see how I could copy, uh, be inspired by, the stories. Ella and Aurora and Belle—there were so many heroines I wanted to write about! And so many princes I wanted my heroines to kiss! But over and over again, as I looked through the books, one thing struck me, like a bell going off in my head: none of these heroines looked like me. And the authors? Well, none of them had names like mine—a dilemma that stopped me cold, my new story notebooks forgotten.
To my seven-year-old self, only one conclusion could be drawn: these were stories I couldn’t tell. Although I could consume them if I wanted, I definitely couldn’t be in the inner circle, deciding what Belle was going to do next. The princesses had closed ranks at the fairy table, and there wasn’t a chair for me.
It breaks my heart that, even today, children from so many backgrounds go through the same inner monologue that I went through back then. And nothing delights me more than to know that every day, more and more books are published that represent a more diverse population, more truly illustrative of the world we live in. Gay kids, disabled kids, brown kids, Black kids, and trans kids can all have their own fictional worlds, be their own protagonists in these brand-new stories. But what about the old stories, those beloved ones that I—and so many others—never got to see ourselves in?
That weirdo of a seven-year-old inside me still wanted to rectify that problem, decades later. If the old princesses had closed ranks around me, then I’d just invent new princesses. With my publisher’s blessing, I’d retell those beloved tales so they had no choice but to include people who were, for so long, completely ignored. And that, for me, began with retelling one of my favorite fairy tales of all time—“Beauty and the Beast.” Only, this time, in my novel Of Curses and Kisses, Belle is Jaya, an Indian princess. And she’s no helpless prisoner to the beast. Instead, she comes to the enchanted boarding school he’s enrolled in of her own volition, to exact revenge for a perceived wrong against her family. Of course, in the process, she falls in love with him (guys, this is me we’re talking about—there has to be kissing!).
Similarly, in the companion novel, Of Princes and Promises (out June 8, yay!), I’m retelling “The Frog Prince.” But instead of our usual Prince Charming, we have Rahul, our socially anxious, chess genius Indian hero. He gets made over by an icy on the outside, soft on the inside Italian heiress who discovers just how much he really has to offer. Because Prince Charmings, too, deserve to be cut from all different cloths.
Another point I really wanted to make by writing this series: Asian American creators, like all marginalized creators, have the right to tell any kind of story they want. Even—gasp—happy ones! I know, I know, it’s a totally radical concept, but bear with me here.
We’re so used to consuming stories about the pain, the issues!, the dark and dirty despair of marginalized communities, that it’s now in danger of becoming a vulgar dance these communities feel forced to perform for the enjoyment of the majority. The gritty issue books are often the ones that receive the accolades, that make the lists, that get lauded as True Literature. But what kind of message is that sending, really?
Look, don’t get me wrong, I love issue books, too. They absolutely need to exist to give a voice to the very real struggle that marginalized communities experience. But when that’s the only story being broadcast widely across publishing (and the world at large) about disabled or Asian or Native American people, among others, what message is that sending these kids—that their stories will always be laden with pain? That they can’t expect to have happy, calm, peaceful lives? That trauma belongs to the oppressed while romantic comedies belong to the majority?
With all due respect, screw that. I’m not here to perform my pain for anyone. I want to show brown people loving and laughing and living their best lives. I want to show marginalized teens falling in love and making silly mistakes and eating chocolate gelato in the sunshine with their friends. Because, believe it or not, for marginalized communities, happiness and lightness are revolutionary. It’s completely badass to be radically happy in the face of a world that tells you to weep.
So, if you need me, I’ll be in my brightly decorated office, writing another teen novel about kissing and first love and probably some manner of overly sweet dessert. Because, let’s face it, my inner seven-year-old still runs the show.