Young People Read Old SFF

Toad Words

T. Kingfisher

Young People Read Old SFF has circled back to a modern work for the final time in the phase of the project. This time the modern author is Ursula Vernon, who also publishes as T. Kingfisher. To quote her Wikipedia entry,

Digger won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story in 2012 and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature in 2013. She won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story and the WSFA Small Press Award for Jackalope Wives in 2015. Her story "The Tomato Thief" won the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

I’ve read a number of Vernon’s works but not, as it happens, any of those. I have read "Toad Words", however, and it seemed an apt choice for a modern work given what the Young People have liked in the past. But I’ve been wrong before...

I like fairy tales. Old ones and new ones. They make very good skeletons for stories, and being centuries old there is rarely a problem with copyright. I also thoroughly enjoyed Digger. I read through it in a night and a day several years ago. Combining these two, I really enjoyed Toad Words. The story evokes a feeling that I can't quite pin down. Not all the stories I've read for this project have evoked, somewhat less than half have. Evocation is not a skill every author has.

I wonder about how possible it is to keep a species alive by creating a few dozen per day. But then cane toads seem to provide a counterexample. I also wonder if the narrator spits out only surviving species or if certain words would cause a long-extinct frog from the Cretaceous to pop out.

Definitely worth the read.

—Jamie

I loved this story. I generally like fairy tale retellings, and I really like the idea of taking this one and looking at the practicalities of living with the curse and the “blessing.” I enjoyed the explanations of learning how different words produce different toads and frogs, and that the reason the narrator learned this was to not kill the frogs by sending them into environments they couldn’t live. I like that their practice with this helped them develop enough skill to made it possible for them to help with conservation efforts. I also liked that this was never expected to be a solution. That it acknowledged that environmental problems are complex and this doesn’t tackle the roots of the issues, just slows down the decline.I like that this reimagining of the fairy tale doesn’t have the siblings against each other, or make one good and one bad, like other versions of this story I’ve heard. That the frogs aren’t a sign of a moral failing, just something that happened. They have to live with it, and have come up with coping mechanisms and ways to use it to help.

—Mikayla

If I had toad words I would hope that at least one of them would be the Desert Rain Frog. You know, the little screaming one from the meme.


Anyway, Kingfisher's story is a delightful exploration of synesthesia made physical, and I love the way she twisted the traditional fairy tale frog prince narrative to become something entirely different and altogether more meaningful. I also think this is just the sort of beautifully succinct short story that many authors dream about writing. Nothing more and nothing less is needed here.

—Claire

I was pleasantly surprised to read this story. I liked the casual, contemporary writing style. The ideas and words are relatively basic - nothing unusual or made up - but they hint at more complicated ideas that could easily lead to a fantasy world with new in-world words and ideas.It seems very contemporary with the extinction of animals and especially of frogs. It fulfills a modern human wish of wanting to simply solve complex problems that we have created like the destruction of the natural world. But even simple wishes are complicated.This story does a great job at ‘less is more’. A thumbs-up. I could read a few more like this.

—Mel

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