Feb 25 2010 12:09pm

YA Fairy Tale Fiction

If Little Red Riding Hood had a cell phone, the conversation might go something like this:

LRRH: Grandma, OMG!
Wolf: LOL

Although the classic dialog loses a little in the texting, fairy tale-inspired novels and retellings for teens are more popular than ever. What does today’s digital generation find relevant in stories they first encountered as small children? Perhaps it’s how those stories are being updated to speak to their experience.

For a genre with roots in a centuries-old oral tradition, fairy tales have proven notably flexible. Like polymer modeling clay, the material is easy to work with and the sophistication of the results limited only by the crafter’s skill and imagination. Some young adult writers bring traditional lore into a modern setting. Others revisit darker elements that popular culture has tended to leave out, whether in the name of protecting vulnerable young people, or not offending the parents who pay good money for adorable princess merchandise.

A different tactic used to keep these stories fresh is to subvert their original messages. Contemporary writers for teens may recast passive heroines, redeem traditional villains, or tell the story from a different character’s point of view. Reversing key details plays with readers’ expectations. Shannon Hale’s Rapunzel, for example, doesn’t get her hair chopped off. Instead, she keeps her long braids and wields them like a weapon. In Malinda Lo’s recent Cinderella retelling, Ash meets Prince Charming and sparks fail to fly; the romantic action is elsewhere.

Whether you like traditional retellings or new takes on old themes, here’s a sampling from the bumper crop of recent and forthcoming fairy tale-inspired fiction for teens.

Released fall 2009:
Ash, by Malinda Lo (Cinderella)
Heart’s Blood, by Juliet Marillier (Beauty & the Beast)
Ice, by Sarah Beth Durst (East of the Sun & West of the Moon)

Coming April 2010:
Shadow, by Jenny Moss (Sleeping Beauty)
Toads & Diamonds, by Heather Tomlinson (The Fairies)
The Wager, by Donna Jo Napoli (Don Giovanni de la Fortuna)

Due out May 2010:
The Princess and the Snowbird, by Mette Ivie Harrison (Beauty & the Beast)
Princess of Glass, by Jessica Day George (Cinderella)
The White Cat, by Holly Black (The White Cat)

* Little Red Riding Hood illustration is from this website, crediting G.P. Jacomb Hood, full citation: Lang, Andrew, ed. The Blue Fairy Book. New York: Dover, 1965. (Original published 1889.)

Erika A.
1. brownjawa
I really enjoy Fairy Tale retellings! Your article pointed out some great new books to look forward to, thank you. :)
Alex Brown
3. AlexBrown
Robin McKinley is my favourite author who does this. Her books "Beauty" and "Rose Daughter" are just awesome. She does such strong heroines that they make great reading for young and adult women alike :)
Patrick Garson
4. patrickg
I could talk about this all day, it's one of my favourite things. :)

I would be a bit leery about mentioning "the original message" though: unless you subscribe to the recent controversial view that most of the popular stories were invited by Grimm et al, then we don't really know what the 'original' was, coming from an oral tradition shrouded in the mists of history.

Indeed, I would actually argue (pretty controversially myself!) that the longevity and utility of fairy tales is precisely because of their ambiguity. We take several archetypes, then shuffle them around like a deck of cards, displaying a combination that most suits the age, author, audience, etc.

The archetypes may not change, but how we think of them does. I'm actually working on a post to put up here later in March around this very topic!
Heather Tomlinson
5. HeatherTomlinson
patrickg: good point about an "original message" not necessarily being discernible because of the tales' transmission through the oral tradition.

To clarify, I should have said rather that writers today are often responding to the messages that they (the writers) took from the fairy tales in whatever form they (again with the writers) originally encountered them (only in a better-constructed sentence with fewer parentheses).

For example, I've often read interviews in which writers for teens say that the passivity of Disney princesses like Cinderella and Snow White both troubled them, and influenced their retellings.

Very much looking forward to hearing more from you on the subject!
6. krispymac
This is a favorite topic of mine as well! i love the first sentences of this post...

Coming from oral traditions, it's the nature of fairy tales to grow and change as cultures combine or clash. While the most original story would always be important, I also appreciate "snapshots" of a story version in a given place in time and how it reflects the particular culture. Like, as you mentioned, passivity of disney females bothering today's writers. (snow white still annoys me... NEVER take food from strangers. unless it's a sample at a coffee shop.) Now we have more strong willed females which begin to measure up to modern day expectations of women. It would be interesting to map out all the versions of a story such as Cinderella and see how they compare.

props. :)
7. Kristen Caven
Great post, thank you! This is such a fun genre (is it a genre?) to work with.

I've got a fresh and fun new take on Cinderella coming up - if anyone wants to read it check out I am actively courting new readers who are familiar with other titles and can give good feedback, so please tell your friends.


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