There was once a girl named Margaret K. Gray who wanted to be a
writer. This is the story of how her wish came true.
One day when she was in eighth grade, Margaret was cast as Cinderella
in the class musical a Cinderella with braces on her teeth.
To prepare, the teacher asked each student to write background material
for their character. Margaret thought about Cinderella, beautiful
fairy tale princesses, and the fact that she couldn't see herself
in princess mode, especially after she mixed up two lines during
the performance, singing "Impossible! For a plain yellow pumpkin
and a prince to join in marriage!" when she should have sung,
"Impossible! For a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden
What, Margaret wondered, if a princess was born ugly? Would it
turn a kingdom upside down? Would anyone recognize her inner beauty?
She started a story.
Years passed. Margaret grew up. Her real parents were like those
in the storybooks the good kind who nurtured her fledgling
efforts to write, especially her father, Paul Gray, who taught at
Princeton University for seven years before becoming a writer and
book reviewer at Time magazine (he recently retired). She read and
read, especially writers like Frances Hodgson Burnett and Jane Austen,
who created a world she could lose herself in while reading their
When it came time, Margaret went to Princeton University. College,
she decided, was a time to try things rather than build a career.
She majored in English and delighted in all the subjects and professors
who opened literary worlds to her: Victorian poetry with James Richardson,
Chaucer with John V. Fleming, non-fiction writing with John McPhee.
She mingled these with courses in psychology, religion and Arabic.
All that information poured into her brain and fed her writing.
She won the 1991 senior thesis prize in Creative Writing for her
book of mostly autobiographical poems, "Inscriptions."
Maybe poetry wasn't practical, but it was fun and she gained a lot
of experience in writing and revising a book.
Then, as often happens, life presented some twists and turns.
Margaret still wanted to be a writer, she just didn't know what
she wanted to write. A Fulbright Fellowship brought her to Cairo,
Egypt to study more Arabic, followed by a master's in fine arts
in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at Yale, then a second master's
in fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University. It was in a genre
writing class at Johns Hopkins that the story of the ugly princess
One week's assignment was to write a children's story. Margaret
went home that weekend. Her mother was doing what real and fairy
tale mothers often do cleaning and asked if a certain
box in Margaret's room might not be trashed. Margaret opened the
box and found her eighth grade story.
With a little spit and polish, the ugly princess story was ready
for class. A second story of a wise fool was added in for good measure.
The response from her classmates was the most positive she received
all that year.
But Margaret shelved the story again. She married a Princeton
classmate, Harry Mittleman '91. She became an editor of publications
for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She woke up one day and
realized that she was having trouble with her job because she really
wanted to be a writer, not an editor.
So Margaret unearthed the story of the ugly princess and the wise
fool and sent it to five children's book publishers on her own.
She received four rejections almost immediately. She had almost
given up hope when...
A fairy godmother editor named Reka Simonsen sent her an email.
Her manuscript had been rejected BUT, if Margaret was willing to
rewrite it and incorporate some editorial advice (read magic words),
perhaps there was a chance her story might turn into a book.
So Margaret did just what her editor suggested. She read other
young adult writers like Gail Carson Levine and Donna Jo Napoli.
She reworked the draft to make her ugly princess more independent
and less cynical. She had fun dreaming up names like Asphalt and
Concrete for the ugly princess's beautiful sisters, and dubbed the
prince Parsley of the Kingdom of Herb as a humorous nod to Parsifal.
She even gave her heroine enchanted hair that styles itself on demand.
She reimagined what it might be like for an adolescent girl to
wake up one morning and find her dream of beauty granted, only to
discover it made her miserable. She created a wise fool best friend
and a scatterbrained fairy godmother to help her heroine sort through
the mess. She wrapped words of wisdom in wit and offbeat humor for
9- to 12-year olds to enjoy.
And wouldn't you know, the story has a happy ending. Margaret's
first book, The Ugly Princess and the Wise Fool, was published in
October by Henry Holt and Company. She's busy on a prequel, in between
caring for her own princess, who is far from ugly, a one-year-old
daughter named Hannah. "The day I got the news that my story
would be published was the best day of my life, second to the day
my daughter was born," Margaret says. She hopes to write many
more books in the future, which for her is a wonderful way to live
happily ever after.
By Maria LoBiondo
Maria LoBiondo is a freelance writer in Princeton.