I have always loved the Charles Perrault fairy tale called simply “The Fairies.” A girl goes to a well to draw water for her family and is approached by an old, threadbare woman who asks for a drink. The girl gladly gives her water. As a reward for her kindness, the woman (actually a fairy, disguised) gives the girl a gift: for every word she speaks, a flower or a jewel shall fall from her lips. The girl returns to her stepmother, who is astonished at the gift and resolves to send her own daughter to the well. That daughter is rude to the fairy, who this time appears as a wealthy old woman (thereby foiling the mother’s instructions to treat a threadbare old woman with kindness). The fairy therefore rewards the daughter with a different gift: for every word she speaks, a toad or a snake will fall from her lips. A nice lesson on the importance of kindness!
Heather Tomlinson has written her own, more modern — and foreign — version of this fairy tale in the young adult novel Toads and Diamonds. Tomlinson sets her novel in an unnamed imagined country similar to India or Pakistan. Her two main characters, who take turns as the viewpoint character in alternating chapters, are Diribani and Tana. The two are stepsisters, but in this story they are the best of friends rather than the typical fairy tale enemies. They live in poverty since the death of Diribani’s father, who was Tana’s stepfather. They are not used to this state; their father was a well-off jeweler, but everything he had saved for them is gone now. One day Diribani goes to the well for water — a task she is not used to performing, as servants used to accomplish that for her family — and meets the goddess Naghali-ji, one of a pantheon of twelve gods. Naghali-ji is disguised as an old, infirm and destitute woman. Diribani gives her water and helps her to a spot in the shade, at which point the old woman is suddenly clear-voiced and sound of body, offering Diribani her heart’s desire. Silently, stunned by the now-obvious presence of the goddess, Diribani wishes for beauty, and receives the gift of flowers and jewels.
In the tumult of emotions arising from the gift, though, Diribani breaks the family’s last clay jar. Tana must return to the well to get water, taking with her a silver pitcher, the last of the family’s wealth. She encounters an obviously wealthy woman who offers her a drink, but Tana refuses. She tells the woman that she would serve her but for the fact that the pitcher drips, and would streak the woman’s lovely silk dress. The woman, who is once again Naghali-ji, offers her a gift for her candor. Tana is silent, but Naghali-ji divines her wish: to protect her family. And so Naghali-ji gives her the gift of toads and snakes. The difference from the Perrault take is that, in this culture, toads and snakes really are a gift. Frogs and toads are lucky, and every household keeps a “house naga” — a snake known to be a species that eats rats.
The young women realize immediately that they must hide their gifts to avoid unwanted attention, but that very quickly becomes impossible. An impetuous but kind act by Diribani gets the story really moving past its fairy tale origins by bringing both sisters to the attention of Prince Zahid and Governor Alwar. The sisters become separated from each other and their mother, both seeking to learn what Naghali-ji intended for them with their gifts in environments fundamentally different from their lives before their encounters with the goddess.
Toads and Diamonds is simply told, with few linguistic flourishes. It lets the reader peer into a foreign culture; even if it is not strictly set in the Mughal Empire during the time of the Hundred Kingdoms, it is sufficiently similar to pique a young reader’s curiosity in another place and time (Tomlinson gives some recommendations for women of the time whom readers might wish to investigate). It is free of sex and bad language, making it easily appropriate for children as young as eight years old to read, but sufficiently sophisticated that a teenager is likely to enjoy it as well. And for those of us who enjoy fairy tales retold, it is good reading no matter our age.