One night when reading a bedtime story to his two young daughters, Neel Williams realized that the fairy tale content was filled with old-school thinking and gender stereotypes, like girls always needing to be rescued by men.
"It struck me: We can do better," said Williams, SVP and creative director at The Martin Agency.
As a writer himself, he decided it was time to modernize these stories with messages of female empowerment and positive role models for both young girls and boys.
Enter: Now Upon a Time.
So far, the pro bono program has six stories, with more in the pipeline. The authors are all creatives within The Martin Agency, who are lending their creative minds for free, as well as Paige Nuckols, a designer at the agency who helped bring some of the princesses to life.
All of the books have been recorded as podcasts and audiobooks, and readers can follow along on the website if they want a visual component. The audio aspect, Williams said, is also helping for busy parents who would rather have their kids use their imaginations than park them in front of a TV for an hour. A number of music and audio partners offered their services for free to create the podcasts, including Namely, Rainmaker Studios, BANG and Pull.
Now Upon a Time is free for whoever wants to access the stories, said Williams, adding that the project is looking to partner with like-minded nonprofits to help spread the message and grow its footprint. The aim is to have printed books, t-shirts, stickers and more available in the future.
To spread the word right now, the group is using word-of-mouth and grassroots tactics, like listening parties at museums.
The intent of the project, Williams said, isn’t to replace or correct iconic fairy tales.
"Those are obviously still out in the world in a million places and available to anyone," he told Campaign US. "With Now Upon a Time, we’re hoping to provide a free resource for parents, kids and teachers who are actively looking for more modern, empowering stories."
Now Upon a Time tales are also not exclusive to girls.
"Yes, it’s addressing a bit of a princess problem, but the characters and storylines are appealing to everyone, and we need to put these positive role models and smarter, braver princesses in front of the next generation of young men," said Williams.
He added that he’s grateful for the incredible support he’s received from his agency.
"After I pitched it to our CCO, Karen Costello, she paved the way for the agency to donate time and resources. It’s amazing to work at a place where your passion projects are taken seriously and given real support, not just lip service," he said.