Book Review: Blanca and Roja

by Noemi Arellano-Summer

photography courtesy of Bustle

Everyone in town thinks they know the del Cisne girls. Blanca is compliant and docile, with coloring as fair as her name. The younger Roja is loud and tempestuous, likened to a witch. Everyone thinks that Blanca and Roja were pulled out of school so they could learn magic. That could not be further from the truth.

Anna-Marie McLemore’s retelling of the old fable of Snow-White and Rose-Red in Blanca y Roja is a powerful story about first impressions hiding the truth about people and how love and trust save lives, even in the darkest of moments.

Years earlier, a del Cisne ancestor begged a set of magical swans for a daughter after having several sons. As in most fairy tales, these fae granted her wish, even doubling it to two daughters each generation. However, there was a catch: the magical birds would eventually take one of the daughters back.

For generations, one of the sisters in the del Cisne family has returned to the swans, and now the decision is between Blanca and Roja.

These two sisters are complete opposites—yet love each other fiercely. The story shows that their love is so strong that they will do anything for the other. While waiting for the swans to decide, the girls befriend a bear and a cygnet, who turn out to be transformed local boys Page and Barclay. The four slowly learn to trust one another in a world that is quick to judge everyone all too harshly.

Blanca and Roja share one story, fraught with tension and secrets. Other threads throughout the story are the romances that start between the two pairs of teens.

McLemore has experience and talent at handling all these narratives and binding them together. This is especially useful as the plotlines are also shot through with poignant magical realism that lends itself well to the fairytale nature of the story.

Given this, the plot unfolds slowly. Blanca, Roja, Page, and Barclay are all given space to be truly seen, by readers and by each other.

The sisters learn to step outside the roles the fairy tale and, by extension their families and community, have given them. At the same time, Page and Barclay are looking for the right roles to fit into. This parallelism leads to realizations about the truths and the lies these characters tell, and how they protect their hearts and each other’s.

McLemore’s lyrical style also helps the reader’s imagination along in picturing the settings and characters.

Roja says towards the beginning, about her and her sister: “If I wanted to, I could believe it was our colors that decided Blanca would be the gentle sister, pure and obliging, and I would be the cruel one, wicked and difficult. She would be the blessed daughter, the one the swans would spare. And I would be the one the swans would take.”

As an additional layer to the Latina reimagining of Snow-White and Rose-Red, Blanca & Roja also gives disability, transgender, and non-binary representation. These characters help fill the tale up with all the bright, shining identities of current society. Page is non-binary, as well as transgender, while Barclay has a vision impairment that impacts the story and his character. The representation also adds an element of pure realism that grounds the story in the present, even when so much of it feels set in a timeless place.

Anna-Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja is a re-telling meant for today’s readers. Its lyricism, themes, and characters all deliver a powerful tale about what we sacrifice for the ones we love.