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YA Fairy Tale Retellings

Fairy tales have endured for hundreds of years for a reason: they are a mix of the simple and the complex; they appeal to our sense of moral justice, romance and longing; their themes are universal; and they often include a surprise twist that keeps us entertained.

The story of a sweet, poor girl falling in love with a rich "prince" is not new, and every time we hear the story we immediately think Cinderella. The monstrous-seeming boy whose beastly ways are turned around by the patient girl brings to mind Beauty and the Beast.

A handful of YA fairy tale retellings pop up every year. Some hold close to the original tale, deviating little from original story lines and characters, while others use the themes as a guideline only, building a rich new world and cast of characters around those themes.

These are the best retellings, I think. I am drawn in by the mix of something comfortable and familiar combined with a fresh, new *big* spin. And when there are so many writers drawing inspiration from fairy tales, you need something to help your story pop. That could mean having the reader ask questions about the characters' sexual orientations, like ASH, by Melinda Lo (Cinderella), or placing the tale in an unexpected setting, such as Nazi Germany, as with BRIAR ROSE by Jane Yolen (Sleeping Beauty). Instead of recounting a story word for word (with minor changes, like putting it in a modern high school), really dig into the story and determine how turning some aspects of it on its head helps deepen the themes. Play up a dark, sinister thread, ask yourself how the story would play out if told from a maligned character's perspective or challenge the characters to be more than two-dimensional examples.

That doesn't mean you can't have ballgowns and castles and love. Sometimes, a breezy retelling hits the spot. Even so, how are you going to tell the story so that it is set apart from everything else out there? Meg Cabot's PRINCESS DIARIES series is classic Cinderella, but it's hard to not have fun with these books, with their endearingly clueless main character and snappy dialogue.

Don't shy away from the possibilities, should you want to draw on the vast fairy tale literary legacy. Whether you choose a well-known, Western tale, or a multicultural tale, give the story your own twist, your own flavor, and something unexpected to blend with the familiar.

What are your favorite fairy tale retellings?
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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28 comments:

  1. I think I sprained a finger, I clicked on this post so quickly! Fairy tale retellings are just wonderful. My personal favourite is Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George. I love Norwegian fairy tales!

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  2. I stubbornly maintain my opinion that Twilight was a retelling of Snow White. From the cover offering the apple to the hunter pursuing the innocent, dark haired beauty, to the "kiss" from Prince Charming that saved her when she was about to die.

    It's even got a somewhat enchanted forest setting and seven interesting people living in the woods who take her in. (Carlisle - Doc, Rosalie - Grumpy, Emmett - Dopey, Alice - Happy, Jasper - Bashful, Edward -(never) Sleepy, Esme - (okay, so she's not Sneezy and the analogy is imperfect :-P )

    But the familiar accessibility of the story was one of its draws.

    ver word: ytediums -- things we've seen so often in YA, they're now tedious.

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  3. Don't forget Shadows on the Moon coming soon by Zoe Marriott, a feudal fantasy Japanese Cinderella :)

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  4. Pretty sure Josin is a genius. Billy is totally the woodsman, with all the flannel? It's so obvious.

    And Jacob is... OOH. He's the mirror on the wall, telling Bella she's the fairest of them all.

    This is a solid theory.

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  5. No particular title comes to mind at the moment, but I love any of the 'Cinderella' type stories. :)

    Writing a fairy tale 'remake' sounds like fun. :)

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  6. I just read Radiant Darkness, a retelling of Persephone and Hades. Not a fairy tale per se, but a lovely retelling of the Greek myth.

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  7. I adore Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. (an upper MG/lower YA) A Curse Dark as Gold is a loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, but very well done. I also love The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.

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  8. Ella Enchanted. Hands Down. And like the Princess Bride says, for years it was my favourite book that I'd never read because I had it on book on tape and just replayed it over and over and over. I think I was in college by the time I actually got a solid copy of the book. Still love it to this day and still hear it in the voice of the book on tape every time I read it.

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  9. I have that picture hanging in my cubicle!

    I do so love the Princess Diaries, but any fairy tale retelling is worth a glance in my book. Beastly is on my TBR list.

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  10. Fairytale telling are just awesome, aren't they? I love the ones that give it a whole new spin.

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  11. I ADORE fairytale retellings. Ella Enchanted, Just Ella and novels by Jessica Day George are some of my favorites. I recently read ENTWINTED (12 Dancing Princesses) and I'm the editorial assistant for THE PRINCESS CURSE-a very original tween 12 Dancing Princesses/Beauty and the Beast/Persephone story that comes out in September. It's a must read!

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  12. Jackson Pearce always writes really good fairy-retelling stories. "Sisters Red" was a great twist on Red Riding Hood.

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  13. I love fairy tale retellings! And Josin, you're a genius. I wonder if Stephanie Meyers knows that it follows the Snow White storyline.

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  14. Moral justice, but most of the time, way over simplified.

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  15. Great post. We too like the retellings that push the boundaries of the original tale. But lately one of our favorite retellings wasn't *too* different... ENTWINED by Heather Dixon is fabulous!

    @Josin-
    HAH, we never thought of Twilight that way, but we like it!

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  16. I love Fairy Tale retellings! I love Gail Carson Levine and Shannon Hale. Their books are so fantastic!

    Also, recently read Princess of the Midnight Ball and its sequel and they were so good.

    The Once Upon a Time series written by multiple authors is now taking up a good chunk of my bookshelves. Each one has something new and exciting! Particularly love the Cameron Dokey ones :)

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  17. @Josin: Brilliant assessment! It's amazing how ingrained these tales sometimes are in our storytelling psyches.

    @Jarvis: Agreed! Which is one reason I think there is so much potential for retellings. Where, in these stories, is there opportunity to flesh out themes and judgments that are too simplified to get to the real, nitty gritty of the story? Good point. :)

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  18. You missed Robin McKinley who did two separate retellings of Beauty and the Beast. Her first novel was Beauty and the Beast in 1978 and then she re imagined Beauty as Rose Daughter in 1997. She also wrote Spindle's End in 2000. This one is Sleeping Beauty.
    Another haunting one is Beauty by Sherri Tepper

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  19. The movie Penelope is my favorite fairytale re-telling. I especially loved how it's a gender-reversed Beauty & the Beast story, and it's so inventive.

    For books, Ella Enchanted is fun!

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  20. I was so excited to find this post because I'm currently writing a fairy tale retelling! With so many great ones already out there it is a little daunting trying to join the ranks of fairy tale writers, but this project was too exciting for me to ignore. Just as the movie "Ever After" tells a realistic, non-magical version of Cinderella I am writing a realistic version of Snow White. My main character Margarete Von Waldeck was an actual woman who lived in the 16th century and who historians suspect was the basis of the Brothers Grimm Snow White fairy tale.

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  21. @Rebecca T. I love those too! Didn't Cameron Dokey do Rapunzel, where Rapunzel was bald? So awesome. Ash, by Malinda Lo, is wonderful as is Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days.

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  22. I would love if someone would look up some lesser known fairy tales and re-tell those. I suppose I should just "write the book I want to read". lol

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  23. I haven't read a lot of fairy tale retellings (unfortunately) but of the ones I have read, I really love Ella Enchanted, The Princess Diaries, Sisters Red, and Just Ella.

    ...and now I need to go look up more retellings to read.

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  24. I really enjoyed "Cinder" by Marissa Meyer. It's got a cyborg Cinderella with moon colonies and an alien virus.

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  25. Oh, hands down my favorite is Entwined by Heather Dixon. THE BEST.

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  26. I had the pleasure to read Snow White Sorrow by Cameron Jace which will be out next October and I can't wait for you to read it.

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  27. The Other Slipper by Kenechi Udogu was pretty good. It sort of tells the story of Cinderella from a different angle.

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  28. Cool to come across this older discussion. I'm a big fan of the "Snow White Blood Red" collection. And I've read a bunch, because I'm a fairytale retelling author myself ("TaleSpins"). Thanks for all the above suggestions, some familiar and some new!

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Item Reviewed: YA Fairy Tale Retellings Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook