Transformations wield power. That thrill of changing is part of the reason why I love all kinds of transformation scenes, from the frosted ball gown swirling around Cinderella to Jacob Black ripping off his shirt and going full wolf.
But my favorite transformations are often quieter. The changes the character undergoes are more or less reflective of an emotional state. How the characters appear—either by choice or curse—becomes illustrative of their psychological plane. Sometimes the character’s transformation foreshadows who they will be or how they will one day see themselves. In these five books, transformations range from the benign and the charming, to the conniving and powerful.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
I love Bardugo’s Grishaverse. One of the most unique characters is Genya Safin, a Tailor who alters appearances. Under Genya’s ministrations, the protagonist, Alina Starkov, gets the Cinderella makeover. But Bardugo subverts that makeover moment by giving it a new context: this is the start of all the ways Alina struggles to hold onto herself. Throughout the book, Alina’s appearance is nowhere near as important as her abilities, but the transformation really struck a chord with me. I loved how it showed how we can become strangers to ourselves, and how we negotiate what’s truly beautiful to us.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Those little magical cakes (“EAT ME”) and the tiny bottle (“DRINK ME”) led to some very rapid and obvious transformations for poor Alice. When I first read the story, I just got ridiculously hungry and would eye every PB&J sandwich with mounting suspicion. Did the peanut butter harbor magical attributes untold? (Alas. It did not. Or perhaps I kept picking up the wrong sandwiches.) But Alice’s transformation—growing large, shrinking small—was a very satisfying metaphor of childhood. Still a weird and beloved read.
Deathless by Catherynne Valente
One of my favorite lines from this book (of which there are many, because Valente is a magical wordsmith) is: “Cosmetics are an extension of the will…when I pinch my cheeks and dust them with mother-of-pearl, I say: death, keep off, I am your enemy, and you will not deny me.” I loved how Valente demonstrates that transformation by cosmetics isn’t the hallmark of a vain girl, but also about the statements we make about who we are—or who we want to be—depending on the moment. COSMETICS ARE A WAY OF WAR! (ululates)
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Even though I’d probably never want to attend the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, I loved the transformational aspect of Brakebills South, where the students are turned into animals, like geese and Arctic foxes. The point of these transformations was to help the students in what they needed to be. Sometimes you have to get out of your skin (literally) to get things done.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne-Jones
Sophie is one of my favorite YA heroines. Her cursed transformation into an old woman shows how disguises often let us be our true selves. Her confidence grows. She feels freed of her past timidity. By the end of the book, it becomes clear that Sophie was retaining her own spell. I really loved how her transformation ended on her own terms, and not by some magic kiss or what have you. She had it in her all along.
Originally published April 2016.
Roshani Chokshi is the author of commercial and critically acclaimed books for middle grade and young adult readers that draw on world mythology and folklore. Her work has been nominated for the Locus and Nebula awards, and has frequently appeared on Best of The Year lists from Barnes and Noble, Forbes, Buzzfeed and more. Her New York Times bestselling series include The Star-Touched Queen duology, The Gilded Wolves, and Aru Shah and The End of Time, which has been optioned for film by Paramount Pictures.