Once upon a time, fairy tales were not just for children. Before the Victorians and Disney sanitized them for younger audiences, they were often dark, raunchy and bloodthirsty. Most fairy tales spring from ancient oral traditions; some may even date back to the Bronze Age. The stories we now consider fairy tales were mostly collected and recorded by writers like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. In seventeenth century France, improvising or retelling fairy tales was even a parlour game. Aristocrats, especially women, gathered at refined ‘salons’ (parties) to show off their intellect and storytelling skills. Many were recorded, like the works of the Baroness d’Aulnoy, who originated the term “fairy tale.”
The definition of a fairy tale is slippery. Stock elements like punishing the evil, rewarding the good, true love’s kiss, and magic reoccur in fairy tales around the world. They crop up across cultures and in vastly different geographical locations. The Chinese legend of Yeh-Shen is strikingly similar to Cinderella’s, for example, right down to the lost slipper. But whether these stories spread by word-of-mouth or are the products of universal human experiences are up for debate. Pseudo-psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim have built careers out of psychoanalyzing fairy tales, linking their tropes, like evil stepmothers, to universal human anxieties and desires. Some historians even theorize that certain stories may have been inspired by real events. Bluebeard, for example, has been linked to Gilles de Rais, a contemporary of Joan of Arc’s and a real life serial killer. In any event, fairy tales are made to be embellished and reinvented for new generations, and the 17 books on this list continue that proud tradition.
1. Bitter Greens, by Kate Forsyth
Aristocratic politics form the backdrop of Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth’s hybrid of a fairy tale and a historical novel. Its main protagonist is Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a real life courtier of Louis XIV, who eventually wrote Persinette, one of the oldest recorded versions of Rapunzel. As the novel opens, she is banished to a convent, where she hears the story of Margherita, who was kidnapped by a witch and forced to live alone in a tower almost a century before. The symbolism is not subtle as Forsyth explores the theme of women rebelling against the confines of their socially accepted roles. The court of the Sun King is a rich, well-researched background, peppered with real historical figures. Bitter Greens also brings to life the salons and storytelling games that helped to popularize fairy tales in the first place.
2. Deer Skin, by Robin McKinley
Deer Skin is a thoughtful and melancholic rendition of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, Donkeyskin. Before the beautiful queen dies, she makes the king promise to remarry a woman equal to her in beauty. But no such woman is found. Until their daughter, the princess, grows up… The original story was often omitted from fairy tale collections or bowdlerized due to its dark themes. McKinley embraces the original, making Deerskin one of her most adult novels. Featuring child neglect, rape, incest, and miscarriage, it’s definitely not for kids. However, it is very true to the source material and narrated in a matter-of-fact fairy tale style that renders its events all the more chilling. There’s something deeply unsettling about the seemingly perfect royal court and the kingdom’s slavish devotion to its picture-perfect royal couple. In Deerskin, McKinley produces an excellent critique and subversion of fairy tale tropes in which beautiful definitely does not equal good.
3. The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
Angela Carter is an award-winning, boundary-pushing feminist writer. The Bloody Chamber, her collection of reworked fairy tales, is one of her most popular works and is typical of her witty and sometimes dark style. It’s definitely a good starting point if you’re new to her writing. The collection contains ten stories and covers Bluebeard (the title story), Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast, among others. It also gives the stories a feminist-bent focus on female points of view. The Bloody Chamber dispenses with the bride’s outraged brothers, for example, as the heroine uses her wits to overcome her murderous husband, with some extra help from her swashbuckling mother. Carter never hesitates to explore the disturbing themes underpinning fairy tales, like rape and incest, so this really isn’t for children, but it is thought-provoking
4. Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
Boy, Snow, Bird is a Snow White retelling with a twist. Boy is a white girl who falls in love with and marries Arturo, becoming the stepmother of his beautiful daughter, Snow. But Boy’s relationship with Snow changes for the worse when Boy gives birth to Bird, her own (half-black) daughter. Set in the fifties and sixties, the stark contrast between how Bird and Snow are treated by their community drives both the plot and the breakdown of the family. Boy, Snow, Bird deals with complex and painful themes, especially racism, racial passing, and gender identity. Telling the story from the “evil stepmother’s” point of view is an interesting strategy, resulting in an intriguing study of family and identity. You could also try Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, which is partially inspired by Hansel and Gretel.
5. Fables, by Bill Willingham and various artists
In Bill Willingham’s graphic novel series, a plethora of fairy tale characters become The Fables, refugees from a fairy tale Homeland living incognito in modern day New York City. Their power struggles and the mystery of what drove them to America are the overarching story arcs of the series. But there are also subplots and side stories about specific characters, sometimes dipping into other folkloric traditions, like One Thousand and One Nights. Being a crossover work, it’s amusing and often intriguing to see disparate characters interact with each other. I particularly loved the romance between Snow White (the de facto leader) and her Right Hand Man, Sheriff Bigby, a.k.a The Big Bad Wolf (in human form, of course). But if fairy tale politics and workplace romance are not your cup of tea, plenty of other genres are also invoked, from whodunnits and crime capers to spy thrillers. The worldbuilding is outstanding, though be warned, many of the series’ themes are on the adult side and the violence can be graphic.
6. Lucy and the Big Bad Wolf, by Ann Jungman
This children’s book is such a blast. In Jungman’s retelling, the wolf mistakes Lucy for Little Red Riding Hood, thanks to her red anorak, and follows her all the way to London to visit her grandmother. No-nonsense Lucy and the melodramatic wolf make a hilariously odd couple. His misunderstandings about the modern world and tendency to be “Wrong Genre Savvy” fuel the comedy throughout the book and its two sequels. To set the tone, the talking wolf immediately dubs himself 2:15, after the train he and Lucy take to London. The friendship that develops between the pair is heartwarming and the books are beautifully illustrated. First published in 1986, Lucy and the Big Bad Wolf holds up well as an entertaining and wittily written children’s story. I loved it as a child and it’s still fun to read as an adult.
7. Girl, Serpent, Thorn, by Melissa Bashardoust
Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a Persian fairy tale about Soraya, a princess cursed before birth by a div (demon). She is poisonous to the touch and so has been banished to the edges of the royal family. But when a div is captured, Soraya might have the chance to break her curse. This is a nice subversion of the typical fairy tale narrative, with the princess initially seeing herself as the monster of her own story. It’s also based on the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Rappaccini’s Daughter, Nathaniel Hawthorn’s tale of doomed romance starring a literally poisonous woman. This in turn was inspired by ancient Indian folk stories. Bashardoust has also said that one of her major influences was the Shahnameh, an epic poem detailing the mythology and history of the Persian Empire. Throughout the book she references many Persian superstitions and mythological characters. This mix of Persian and European folklore makes Girl, Serpent, Thorn particularly fascinating. Released in 2020, Soraya’s fear of physical contact will be familiar to many readers.
8. Cinderella Is Dead, by Kalynn Bayron
If you’re looking for a YA subversion of Cinderella, look no further. Our protagonist, Sophia, lives in a hideously patriarchal kingdom that’s really an authoritarian police state. Cinderella’s ball has become a tool of oppression, which young women are forced to attend and be “chosen” by despotic future husbands. But Sophia is in love with her (female) best friend, and as she attempts to escape the palace, she discovers a resistance movement and the mystery of what really happened to Cinderella. Cinderella Is Dead is not exactly subtle and male readers may be miffed by the villainy of most (though not all) of its male characters. Still, it makes good points about male privilege and double standards, and it’s great to see a lesbian romance at the heart of the fairy tale. A celebration of black beauty, female empowerment, and LGBT+ characters, its positive messages and snappy dialogue more than make up for its occasional heavy-handedness.
9. The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale
The Goose Girl is a straightforward retelling of the fairy tale of the same name. The original story is relatively obscure and a little bizarre: a princess’ life is hijacked on her way to an arranged marriage in a foreign kingdom. Shannon Hale fills out the plot and develops the characters and a whole magic system from the limited details recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Language is very important as this world’s magic is divided into people-speaking, animal-speaking, and nature-speaking. Elemental magic features prominently (manipulating the wind), though animal-speaking also proves very useful to Ani, the protagonist, when she is forced to tend to her would-be husband’s geese. There’s a romantic subplot that develops, though Ani’s friends are equally important, particularly her friendship with her talking horse, Falada. If you want a retelling that sticks close to the source material and has some interesting worldbuilding, this is a good choice.
10. Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett is the king of comedic fantasy; his Discworld books have sold millions of copies and lampoon everything from Shakespeare to Christmas. In Witches Abroad, he turns his focus to fairy tales as Magrat the witch inherits the role of Fairy Godmother to Emberella. Since Emberella lives in a distant kingdom, this necessitates a long journey and lots of jokes about clueless tourists. Along the way, Magrat and her fellow witches, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, also come across a host of deconstructed fairy tales and grapple with storytelling conventions. As usual, Pratchett manages to both mock and seriously discuss themes like narrative causality while making lots of puns and silly jokes. It’s as meta as you would expect a Pratchett novel to be and, of course, very funny. As the twelfth (of 41) Discworld book, and only the second focusing on the Witches, it’s a good place to start if you’re new to the series.
11. The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are vividly reimagined in this book gorgeously illustrated by Chris Riddell’s distinctive art. Here, Snow White is now Queen and sets out to investigate the mysterious sleeping sickness afflicting the neighbouring kingdom. Being Snow White, she’s immune and the dwarves accompanying her have a convenient natural resistance. Combining the stories of the two most famous sleeping princesses is a genius idea, and it’s a Gaiman/Riddell collaboration, so expect intense creepiness; magical sleep has rarely been so unsettling. It’s also punchily written with a richness that belies its brevity. It might look like a picture book thanks to its intricate illustrations, but be warned, The Sleeper and the Spindle features mild horror unsuitable for young children. But if horror is your thing, you could also try Snow, Glass, Apples, Neil Gaiman’s and Colleen Doran’s novella featuring a vampiric Snow White.
12. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire
Gregory Maguire is best known for Wicked, the novel that inspired the musical about the Wicked Witch of the West. However, he has also rewritten a few fairy tales as historical novels. My personal favorite is Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which relocates Cinderella to Haarlem, the Netherlands, during the Dutch Golden Age. For once, the ugly stepsisters and Cinderella are not at odds. If anything, they are overprotective of Clara (Cinderella), who is a shut-in due to a childhood trauma. Maguire imagines a life for all three sisters, including a budding painting career and romance for Iris, the elder stepsister and main character. Even so, the Cinderella elements are all present and correct as Maguire deconstructs and rationalizes the story’s outlandish elements, wrapped up in a package of fascinating period detail.
13. East, by Edith Pattou
East of the Sun and West of the Moon is a Norweigian ‘lost husband’ fairytale similar to Cupid and Psyche and Beauty and the Beast. Edith Pattou’s YA retelling East is true to the original as its heroine, Rose, is whisked away to the palace of a magical white bear. Unbeknownst to her, the bear has been cursed by a Troll Queen and Rose is his only hope of breaking the curse. Pattou wisely removes the more dubious aspects of the “mystery husband” narrative, but manages to preserve the romance of the story. I enjoyed her worldbuilding, especially her descriptions of the bear’s magical palace and the kingdom of the trolls. Rose is quickly established as a born explorer, so her arctic quest North fulfills a satisfying character arc and introduces plenty of adventure and peril. If you fancy a retelling of a lesser-known fairy tale, this is a good choice.
14. Geekerella, by Ashley Poston
In Geekerella, Ashley Poston transplants Cinderella into the setting of modern fandom. Elle is a fangirl devoted to Starfield, a show similar to Star Trek. She’s desperate to escape her horrible stepfamily by attending the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball (and winning a cash prize). Meanwhile, Darien is a teen heartthrob but closet nerd struggling with the pressure of playing Federation Prince Carmindor in Starfield’s movie reboot. The friendship that develops (anonymously via texting) between Elle and Darien is very sweet, morphing into a You’ve Got Mail style romance. This is a book packed with pop culture references. I also liked that both leads get full character arcs through which they support each other. Poston works in the canonical details very inventively; I particularly enjoyed the Magic Pumpkin food truck. At its core, Geekerella is a heartwarming celebration of friendship and the magic of fan communities.
15. Beauty, by Sheri S. Tepper
This is such a strange and interesting novel, the story of Sleeping Beauty with teeth and a Sci-fi twist. Fair warning: there are graphic scenes of rape and giving birth. After a spell sends the residents of her castle into a magical sleep, the heroine of the novel escapes, only to be picked up by a time traveller and whisked away to a dystopian future of an overly-polluted and populated Earth. From there, Beauty continues to range across time and into Fairyland and back, slipping in and out of fairy tales as she does so. Tepper makes interesting use of her fairy tale material — Cinderella is rather creepy, for a start. The importance of beauty to humanity’s survival is discussed, particularly in relation to the natural world. The sterile dystopia of the twenty-first century is a depressing, joyless place, and the environmental message is as clear and relevant today as it was in 1991. Unfortunately.
16. Thorn, by Intisar Khanani
Thorn is another Goose Girl retelling, this time with a Middle Eastern inspired setting and a slow-burn romance. It tells the story of Alyrra, a downtrodden princess who has the chance to escape an emotionally-abusive home and an arranged marriage when her handmaiden steals her identity. Khanani faithfully incorporates key story elements from the original, including the wind magic and the talking horse. Thorn‘s princess is less passive, though; witnessing the kingdom’s injustices from her new lowly position challenges her to take action, unlike the timid princess of the Grimm version. Violence against women and surviving trauma is a major theme and one that Khanani handles sensitively. True justice is also discussed with surprising depth. With its weighty themes, sumptuous setting and well-developed protagonist, Thorn is a worthy entry into the canon of fairy tale retellings.
17. The Wild Swans, by Peg Kerr
A retelling of the fairy tale of the same name, Peg Kerr relocates the action to Puritan New England and 1980s New York. The viewpoint characters are Eliza, the fairytale heroine who is transported to America by her swan brothers, and Elias, a young gay man living on the streets at the start of the AIDS crisis. The split narrative works surprisingly well, allowing Kerr to develop themes of familial rejection (Elias’ family kicks him out for being gay while Eliza has to flee her evil stepmother), persecution, and curses. Eliza must break the curse on her brothers while facing suspicion from her new community, while Elias struggles to survive both the disease and the homophobia of his society and government. It’s a great concept, paralleling the curse of AIDS with a magical one, particularly as it draws attention to the real life evils and heroism of the AIDS epidemic. The Wild Swans is a great example of a fairy tale retelling that shines light on the recent past and is still relevant today.