From Harvard Magazine:
“Fairy tales have always tapped into the subconscious, bringing to light children’s deepest fears,” says Soman Chainani ’01. In his new fantasy-adventure novel, The School for Good and Evil, he has brought that tenet into the twenty-first century. The first of a trilogy for middle-grade readers (ages nine and up), The School for Good and Evil tracks two archetypal heroines: the lovely Sophie, with her waist-long blond hair and her dreams of becoming a princess, and her friend Agatha, an unattractive, unpopular contrarian who chooses to wear black. A giant bird snatches the pair and carries them off to the School for Good and Evil, a two-pronged magical academy that trains children to become fairy-tale heroes and villains. When, to her horror, Sophie arrives at the Evil branch to learn “uglification,” death curses, and other dark arts, while Agatha finds herself at the School for Good amid handsome princes and fair maidens, the line between good and evil blurs, the meaning of beauty twists, and the girls reveal their true natures.
At the core of their journey is the “princess culture,” which Chainani defines as today’s “tyranny of pink in young-girl marketing. It tells them their responsibility is to be pink, sparkly, ultra-feminine, and—most of all—pretty.” With such an emphasis on looks, “girly girls are terrified of being ugly, and normal girls are afraid of being outcasts.” Even boys are unnerved. “They have no idea how to live up to the expectations,” he says. “That’s what I am interested in capturing: what kids fear most today.” Sophie and Agatha inhabit a world like that of classic fairy tales: a place where magic and reality coexist, and dangers lurk. Yet those dangers reflect modern issues. Several episodes tackle the fear of aging; one chapter riffs on the current obsession with physical self-improvement. In a scene where Sophie is asked to contribute to the school, she becomes a campus celebrity by offering “Malevolent Makeovers” and a presentation titled “Just Say No to Drab.” When Agatha challenges her, Sophie replies, “Isn’t this compassion? Isn’t this kindness and wisdom? I’m helping those who can’t help themselves!”
“So much is based on image,” Chainani explains. “It’s such a pervasive, destructive thing.”