Some of the oldest of stories are fairytales, passed on from person to person even before there were books, or even writing. Fairytales are as prevalent today as they have ever been, providing a framework for storytelling across all genres of literature and media. And they aren't just for children!
It’s only been in more recent times that people have begun dividing up stories into age-appropriate categories that I think leaves those excluded sadly deprived. There is a rich culture of story-telling and tradition rooted in fairytales that lends much to more modern re-telling (although none can beat the originals… if you can ever pinpoint which ones those are). Here are some great contemporary interpretations of familiar (and maybe not-so-familiar) classic fairytales that just might surprise you with their originality (although the parts that aren’t original just might surprise you, too).
Deerskin by Robin McKinley is one of my favorite retold stories, inspired by the Perrault fairytale Donkeyskin. Lissar, the only child of a king and queen renowned for their beauty and charm, has always lived on the outside of the golden bubble only her parents have ever fit in. When her mother suffers an untimely death, a promise Lissar’s father made to her before her death, that he only marry someone as beautiful as the queen, begins to change things for Lissar in unsettling ways when it becomes apparent that Lissar’s beauty may well rival that of her deceased mother. One of the darker fairytales, Deerskin stays true to heart of the original fairytale while spinning out a story that is delightfully tangible, original and engrossing. Also read McKinley’s excellent reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, Spindle’s End, and Beauty, her version of the ever-popular Beauty and the Beast.
Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale, is inspired by the lesser known Maid Maleen, from the Brothers Grimm. Hale’s version is set in ancient Mongolia, giving it an exotic and interesting depth. The story is narrated in journal form by Dashti, a young maidservant, whose mistress, the Lady Saren, is locked in a tower for seven years by her father for refusing to marry the man her father has chosen for her. Hale’s retelling is poetic, a great endorsement for female empowerment, and (the best part to me) a message on the power of writing, stories and books. I also really enjoyed Hale’s retelling of The Goose Girl (which became the first in a series of books which while not based on any fairytales are still great reads).
The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope, is actually a favorite of mine from when I was a kid (which was only last year *ahem* in my mind), inspired by the Scottish ballad, Tam Lin, where a girl must save her love enspelled by the Fairy Queen by holding on to him as he progresses through several dangerous transformations. Pope’s story follows Kate, a lady-in-waiting to the princess who would later become Queen Elizabeth I. Kate is exiled to a remote castle where she becomes involved with a young noble, Christopher, and the secrets plots of the Old Ones, cruel fairy folk said to inhabit a realm under the hill. Kate is a strong, independent character, and her exploits amongst the fairy folk are wonderfully imagined and unique.
Briar Rose, by the fabulously unique Jane Yolen, takes the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty and uses it to retell not only this story in an amazing and unexpected way, but also the tale of a survivor of one of history’s darkest events. Rebecca ‘s grandmother has always told her stories about Briar Rose, but she never thought too deeply of these fantastical tales until the day her grandmother tells her “I am Briar Rose.” Emotional, at times dark, but sensitive and thoughtful, Briar Rose is a must-read for those who love fairtytales and historical fiction.
Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier, is based on different versions of similar fairytales, mainly The Six Swans from the Brothers Grimm, and The Children of Lir, an Irish Legend. It follows the story of Sorcha, seventh and youngest child of the Lord of Sevenwaters, with six older brothers who love her fiercely, having lost their mother at Sorcha’s birth. Their father becomes enchanted by a woman with a dark agenda that involves casting a terrible spell on the children of Sevenwaters, trapping them in the shape of swans. Only Sorcha escapes this fate, but to free her brothers, she is instructed by the fey Lady of the Forest to weave shirts made of nettle-like starwort, one for each brother, a labor that will mean years, and in all that time she must remain completely silent. The story is dark at times, and addresses issues that some may find uncomfortable, but Marillier does a lovely job of weaving in the dark with the light. Daughter of the Forest is followed by three other related novels following the various descendants of the Sevenwaters clan.
Click on any of the titles mentioned to visit the OC Public Libraries website and reserve a copy today. And leave a comment sharing your favorite modern fairytale retelling!
Other fairytale-inspired novels you may like:
Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card (Sleeping Beauty)
Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George (The Twelve Dancing Princesses)
Sirena, by Donna Jo Napoli (Hans Christian Anderson’s lovely but sad The Little Mermaid)
Napoli has also written Zel (Rapunzel), Beast (Beauty and the Beast), Bound (Mulan), The Magic Circle (Hansel and Gretl), and Spinners (Rumpelstiltskin)
Similar novels mentioned in previous posts:
Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (Cinderella)
The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey (The Snow Child)