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If you know me, then you know I love fairy tales and their retellings or reimaginings (enough that I’m writing my own). Fairy tales are generally quite short and before they were bound in books and set on shelves, they were oral stories told around hearths and tables. They were short so they could be shared and retold, passed from hearth to hearth and generation to generation. What I love about fairy tale retellings is there is so much potential in them.
It’s a shame that so many people hear “fairy tale retelling” and immediately think juvenile. They are often considered middle grade or YA, as if fairy tales are only for children. These potential readers miss the world hidden in these tales and what fairy tales do for the reader.
And while fairy tales are not limited to tales that have been told before (nor are they limited to fae or a prince kissing a princess), but to the magical genre, there is a comfortable familiarity when opening up a fairy tale retelling and meeting well-loved characters in a new time or place with perhaps a different perspective or history. With retellings, authors have the chance to delve into the intricacies of human emotion and experience, ask harder questions, and pull back layers exposing the truth that lays under the safe veneer fairy tales have been given in the last two hundred years.
“Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. ”
C. S. Lewis wrote these words to his goddaughter in the dedication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Perhaps you were intrigued by fairy tales when you were younger or picked up a retelling in a bookshop only to put it down before someone saw you–an adult–pick up a fairy tale.
Perhaps, it’s time you read fairy tales again. Even as adults, we need stories of beauty and love, tales that strip us to the truth and tales that speak into our fears and tell us we can face our own battles.
Here are seventeen retellings that have captivated me over the years. Don’t worry, these retellings and reimaginings are unique and won’t be a play by play of your childhood storybook.
Bitter Greens, by Kate Forsyth
What I love: This was my first reintroduction to fairy tales. You can thank Disney for peaking my interest in Rapunzel.
French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from the court of Versailles by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. At the convent, she is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, is sold by her parents for a handful of bitter greens…After Margherita’s father steals parsley from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off, unless he and his wife relinquish their precious little girl. Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1512 and still inspiring him at the time of his death. She is at the center of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition. Locked away in a tower, Margherita sings in the hope that someone will hear her. One day, a young man does.
Original Tale: Rapunzel
The Beast’s Garden, by Kate Forsyth
What I love: This book was wholly unexpected. It brought a perspective on WWII that I never considered. And that’s all I’ll say.
Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true nature to the world. A retelling of the Grimms’ Beauty and the Beast, set in Nazi Germany.
It’s August 1939 in Germany, and Ava’s world is in turmoil. To save her father, she must marry a young Nazi officer, Leo von Löwenstein, who works for Hitler’s spy chief in Berlin. However, she hates and fears the brutal Nazi regime and finds herself compelled to stand against it.
Ava joins an underground resistance movement that seeks to help victims survive the horrors of the German war machine. But she must live a double life, hiding her true feelings from her husband even as she falls in love with him. Gradually she comes to realise that Leo is part of a dangerous conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
As Berlin is bombed into ruins, the Gestapo ruthlessly hunt down all resistance, and Ava finds herself living hand to mouth in the rubble of the shell-shocked city. Both her life and Leo’s hang in the balance.
Filled with danger, intrigue and romance, The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of the Grimm brothers’ Beauty and The Beast, is a beautiful, compelling love story set in a time when the world seemed on the brink of collapse.
Original Tale: Beauty & the Beast
The Lunar Chronicles, by Marissa Meyer
What I love: Umm…what’s not to love? The classic fairy tales set in a dystopian, new world future, where there’s also a colony on the moon, plus a rebellion. Plenty of characters and twists to love.
Once upon a time, in the future . . . .
The Lunar Chronicles are futuristic retellings of classic fairy tales. In Cinder, a teenage cyborg (half human, half machine) must deal with a wicked stepmother, start a rebellion against the evil Queen Levana, and decide how she feels about a handsome prince. As the series continues, Cinder forges alliances with Scarlet, a spaceship pilot who is determined to solve the mystery of a missing loved one―with the help of a magnetic street fighter named Wolf; Cress, a computer hacker who is imprisoned by Queen Levana; and Winter, a princess who’s in love with a commoner, and who discovers that Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress may hold the key to saving her kingdom―and the world.
Original Tale: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Snow White
The Healer’s Apprentice, by Melanie Dickerson
What I love: All the herbal remedies! It also wasn’t until near the end that I realized what fairy tale this novel was retelling.
Rose has been appointed as a healer’s apprentice at Hagenheim Castle, a rare opportunity for a woodcutter’s daughter like her. While she often feels uneasy at the sight of blood, Rose is determined to prove herself capable. Failure will mean returning home to marry the aging bachelor her mother has chosen for her—a bloated, disgusting merchant who makes Rose feel ill.When Lord Hamlin, the future duke, is injured, it is Rose who must tend to him. As she works to heal his wound, she begins to understand emotions she’s never felt before and wonders if he feels the same.But falling in love is forbidden, as Lord Hamlin is betrothed to a mysterious young woman in hiding. As Rose’s life spins toward confusion, she must take the first steps on a journey to discover her own destiny.
Original Tale: Sleeping Beauty or Briar Rose
East, by Edith Pattou
What I love: “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is one of my favorite fairy tales. I loved Pattou’s use of maps as part of destiny and how the four winds are people in this retelling, it brought a realness to a story imbued with magic.
Rose is the youngest of seven children, meant to replace her dead sister. Maybe because of that, she’s never really fit in. She’s always felt different, out of place, a restless wanderer in a family of homebodies. So when an enormous white bear mysteriously shows up and asks her to come away with him – in exchange for health and prosperity for her ailing family – she readily agrees.
Rose travels on the bear’s broad back to a distant and empty castle, where she is nightly joined by a mysterious stranger. In discovering his identity, she loses her heart – and finds her purpose – and realizes her journey has just begun.
As familiar and moving as Beauty and the Beast, yet as fresh and original as only the best fantasy can be, East is a bold retelling of the classic tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”, a sweeping story of grand proportions.
Original Tale: East of the Sun, West of the Moon (Norwegian)
The Stolen Kingdom, Bethany Atazadeh
What I love: This was a pleasantly unexpected twist to the Aladdin tale. The princess sets out on her own to free her kingdom and meets a band of thieves she convinces, in a roundabout way, to help her get what she needs to save her kingdom.
Princess Arie never expected to manifest a Jinni’s Gift. When she begins to hear the thoughts of those around her, she hides it to the best of her ability. But to her dismay, the Gift is growing out of control.
When a neighboring king tries to force her hand in marriage and steal her kingdom, discovery becomes imminent. Just one slip could cost her throne. And her life.
A lamp, a heist, and a Jinni hunter’s crew of thieves are her only hope for removing this Gift–and she must remove it before she’s exposed. Or die trying.The Stolen Kingdom is a loose “Aladdin” retelling. Set in a world that humans share with Mermaids, Dragons, and the elusive Jinni, this isn’t the fairytale you remember…
Original Tale: Aladdin, The Little Mermaid
Deerskin, Robin McKinley
What I love: One of my favorite picture books growing up was Princess Furball by Charlotte Huck, which is a children’s version of Deerskin. The illustrations are dreamy. I’d loved Deerskin because it faced trauma and how one might realistically respond to the horrible trauma of rape and incest, but it also Lissar’s journey to coming back to life, so to speak, after trauma.
(It’s worth noting there are many variations and titles of Deerskin, based on where the tale is from and when it was published, with slight variation in the plot. Some are Allerleirauh, Catskin, A Thousand Furs, Donkeyskin and more. For a good, brief article, read Fairytale Rape by Jo Walton on how McKinley handles this topic so well.)
The only daughter of a beloved king and queen, Princess Lissar has grown up in the shadow of her parents’ infinite adoration for each other – an infatuation so great that it could only be broken by the queen’s unexpected passing. As Lissar reaches womanhood, it becomes clear to everyone in the kingdom that she has inherited her late mother’s breathtaking beauty. But on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, Lissar’s exquisite looks become a curse…
Betrayed and abused, Lissar is forced to flee her home to escape her father’s madness. With her loyal dog Ash at her side, Lissar finds refuge in the mountains, where she has the chance to heal and start anew. As she unlocks a door to a world of magic, Lissar finds the key to her survival and begins an adventure beyond her wildest dreams.
Original Tale: All the Furs, Catskin, Many Furs/Thousand Furs, Allerleirauh, (German & English)
The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale
What I love: The prose, the descriptions. It’s an all-around great telling of The Goose Girl.
Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, spends the first years of her life listening to her aunt’s stories and learning the language of the birds, especially the swans. As she grows up, Ani develops the skills of animal speech, but she never feels quite comfortable speaking with people.
So when Ani’s mother sends her away to be married in a foreign land, she finds herself at the mercy of her silver-tongued lady in waiting, who leads a mutiny that leaves her alone, destitute, and fleeing for her life. To survive, Ani takes on work as a royal goose girl, hiding in plain sight while she develops her forbidden talents and works to discover her own true, powerful voice.
Original Tale: The Goose Girl
Uprooted, Naomi Novik
What I love: This book has so many twists and turns. I have not walked through the woods the same since finishing Uprooted. Especially around creeks.
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
Original Tale: “Agnieszka Skrawek Nieba,” a Polish fairy tale
Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik
What I love: This book isn’t your normal fairy tale or even retelling. There’s no (to little) romance, but survival and the wit and strength of women to survive and endure in a world where they are seen as pawns and pleasures. So much Eastern European folklore–it’s breathtaking and eerie.
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. She will face an impossible challenge and, along with two unlikely allies, uncover a secret that threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike.
Original Tale: Rumpelstiltskin
The Winternight Trilogy , Katherine Arden
What I love: The Bear & the Nightingale, Book 1 of the series, may have been my introduction to Russian and Slavic folklore. It is a different world and different creatures and tales than you see in Grimm or Perrault (more western European) fairy tales. It was like entering a new world. I loved how Arden paired it so perfectly with early to mid-medieval Russia.
Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.
Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.
But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
Original Tale: “Agnieszka Skrawek Nieba,” a Polish fairy tale
Silver in the Blood, Jessica Day George
What I love: This was another visit into Eastern European folklore. I enjoyed the different family branches and their shapeshifting secrets, as well as the cousins relationship.
As debutantes in 1890s New York City, cousins Dacia and Lou knew little about their mysterious Romanian relatives, the Florescus. Now, upon turning seventeen, the girls must journey to Romania–a journey that seems to be both reward and punishment–to meet their cousins and their tyrant of a grandmother and to learn the secrets of their family. Secrets spoken of in whispers. Dangerous secrets known as the Claw, the Wing, and the Smoke.
But as dangerous as those family secrets might be, even more dangerous is the centuries-old bond between the Florescus and the royal Dracula family, and it seems that it’s time for Dacia and Lou to give up their life in New York society and take their place among the servants of the Draculas. When the devilish heir, Mihai Dracula, sets his sights on Dacia as part of his evil, power-hungry plan, the girls must accept or fight against this cruel inheritance. Do they have the courage to break the shackles of their upbringing and set the course of their own destiny?
Original Tale: Dracula & other Romania folklore
Sun & Moon, Ice & Snow, Jessica Day George
What I love: I loved the isbjorn and the Lass’ relationship, as well as the temperaments of the four winds.
Blessed–or cursed–with an ability to understand animals, the Lass (as she’s known to her family) has always been seen as strange. And when an isbjorn (polar bear) seeks her out, and promises that her family will become rich if only the Lass will accompany him to his castle, she doesn’t hesitate.
But the bear is not what he seems, nor is his castle, which is made of ice and inhabited by a silent staff of servants. Only a grueling journey on the backs of the four winds will reveal the truth: the bear is really a prince who’s been enchanted by a troll queen, and the Lass must come up with a way to free him before he’s forced to marry a troll princess.
Original Tale: East of the Sun, West of the Moon
Briar Rose, Jane Yolen
What I love: This is one of those books that I didn’t like as much when I finished, but I look back on now much fonder. It’s a bit of a mystery, but the ending will get you. It puts a whole different twist to the idea of a sleeping beauty.
As a little girl, Rebecca Berlin loved listening to her grandmother, Gemma, tell the fairy tale of Briar Rose. Now, as Gemma lies on her deathbed, a grown-up Rebecca asks her to tell the story one last time. Instead Gemma makes a startling confession that forever changes the fairy tale for Rebecca. Pulling her granddaughter close, Gemma whispers, “I am Briar Rose.”
Her family thinks she is delirious. But Rebecca senses Gemma is telling the truth. To prove it, she embarks on a journey from modern-day New York to wartime Poland, to the ruins of a Nazi death camp. What Rebecca discovers there is more than a fairy tale come to life. It is an extraordinary revelation of courage, compassion, and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.
Original Tale: Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty
Hunted, Meagan Spooner
What I love: This one doesn’t play with the darkness of the beast, the isolation, or the loneliness of living on the outskirts of society.
Beauty knows the Beast’s forest in her bones—and in her blood. After all, her father is the only hunter who’s ever come close to discovering its secrets.
So when her father loses his fortune and moves Yeva and her sisters out of their comfortable home among the aristocracy and back to the outskirts of town, Yeva is secretly relieved. Out in the wilderness, there’s no pressure to make idle chatter with vapid baronessas…or to submit to marrying a wealthy gentleman.
But Yeva’s father’s misfortune may have cost him his mind, and when he goes missing in the woods, Yeva sets her sights on one prey: the creature he’d been obsessively tracking just before his disappearance. The Beast.
Deaf to her sisters’ protests, Yeva hunts this strange creature back into his own territory—a cursed valley, a ruined castle, and a world of magical creatures that Yeva’s only heard about in fairy tales. A world that can bring her ruin, or salvation.
Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?
Original Tale: Beauty and the Beast, with Eastern European folklore
A Curse as Dark as Gold, Elizabeth C. Bunce
What I love: I’d never read, or heard of, a Rumpelstiltskin retelling outside of picture books. (This was prior to Spinning Silver.) This was a much more realistic, than magical, though there is definitely magic in it. I appreciated the real world weight Charlotte suffered under the curse and how it affected her family and relationships.
Charlotte Miller has always scoffed at talk of a curse on her family’s woolen mill, which holds her beloved small town together. But after her father’s death, the bad luck piles up: departing workers, impossible debts, an overbearing uncle. Then a stranger named Jack Spinner offers a tempting proposition: He can turn straw into gold thread, for the small price of her mother’s ring. As Charlotte is drawn deeper into her bargains with Spinner-and a romance with the local banker-she must unravel the truth of the curse on the mill and save the community she’s always called home.
Original Tale: Rumpelstiltskin
Geekerella, Elizabeth C. Bunce
What I love: I can get behind a good fandom. This is a contemporary Cinderella retelling, but I loved how much it focused on her relationship with her dad and the legacy he left her. You know, the one her stepmother is trying to keep her from. Also, I know that until the last year that Poston’s Con books are based off the real life Dragon Con that takes place in Atlanta, Ga every year.
Part romance, part love letter to nerd culture, and all totally adorbs, Geekerella is a fairy tale for anyone who believes in the magic of fandom. Geek girl Elle Wittimer lives and breathes Starfield, the classic sci-fi series she grew up watching with her late father. So when she sees a cosplay contest for a new Starfield movie, she has to enter. The prize? An invitation to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball, and a meet-and-greet with the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot. With savings from her gig at the Magic Pumpkin food truck (and her dad’s old costume), Elle’s determined to win…unless her stepsisters get there first.
Teen actor Darien Freeman used to live for cons—before he was famous. Now they’re nothing but autographs and awkward meet-and-greets. Playing Carmindor is all he’s ever wanted, but the Starfield fandom has written him off as just another dumb heartthrob. As ExcelsiCon draws near, Darien feels more and more like a fake—until he meets a girl who shows him otherwise.
Original Tale: Cinderella