As Nabokov once said, “All great novels are great fairytales.” Here are ten stunning books that retell classic fairytales as you’ve never heard them told before.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
No list of fairytale retellings would be complete without Angela Carter, so let’s set the bar high right away with The Bloody Chamber, her iconic collection of short stories whose fairytale inspirations range from “Bluebeard” to “Little Red Riding Hood”. No one had a better understanding of the macabre implications of fairytales than Carter, whose devastatingly gorgeous prose deconstructs the tales from a feminist point of view.
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman
Anyone familiar with Neil Gaiman’s work knows his affinity for fairytales. His retellings always put a stylish, subversive spin on the original tale, and The Sleeper and the Spindle is no exception. Gaiman has explored “Snow White” before with his dark short story “Snow Glass Apples”, in which Snow is a vampire — it makes perfect sense, right? — but here he approaches her from a strikingly different angle: as a brave young queen who goes on a quest to wake a sleeping princess. Yes, Snow White wakes Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, but all is not as it seems — and is it ever, in a Gaiman story?
Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
Even if you’ve read a ton of fairytale retellings, you’ve never read one quite like Deathless. Catherynne M. Valente takes a Russian fairytale obscure to many readers — “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” — and sets it in all the tumult and turmoil of the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution. With beautiful, haunting language and evocative themes, Valente skillfully explores not only the fascinating figures of Koschei and his bride, Marya Morevna, but also the very nature of the story they inhabit.
East by Edith Pattou
Based on “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” (another interesting fairytale you might not have heard of — essentially “Beauty and the Beast” with a lot more action and adventure), Edith Pattou’s East stays true to the tale’s northern roots, taking place in icy Norway and incorporating elements of Nordic mythology.
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Looking for another version of “Beauty and the Beast” to tide you over until Emma Watson makes her Belle debut? Look no further than Beauty by Robin McKinley, which manages to be fresh, clever, and utterly captivating while remaining a relatively straightforward novelization of the original fairytale. And since Beauty was written way back in 1978, it made Beauty an intelligent bookworm long before Disney thought to do so.
Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue
The premise of the thirteen connecting fairytales in Kissing the Witch is inimitably compelling: in each story, the heroine (a princess or young maiden) becomes the villain (an ‘evil’ queen or witch) of the following tale. Many are told with a lesbian twist, adding an extra element of interest and originality to what is already a riveting collection.
Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Less a retelling of “Snow White” than a critical reimagining, Boy Snow Bird by acclaimed British novelist Helen Oyeyemi examines racial tensions and ambiguities in 1950s America, where Snow’s white-passing skin is a point of both pride and hatred for those around her — including her white stepmother. Oyeyemi weaves a powerful spell with words, and Boy Snow Bird will leave you thinking long after you set it down.
Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli
Spinners is technically a young adult novel, but author Donna Jo Napoli pulls no psychological punches with her dark retelling of the “Rumpelstiltskin” story, filling in all the narrative gaps of the original fairytale while making you consider it from an entirely new perspective. Napoli’s prose is lyrical and poetic, and her other fairytale retellings (Zel for “Rapunzel” and Sirena for “The Little Mermaid”, for instance) are worth reading as well.
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
“Tam Lin” is technically a folklore ballad, not a fairytale, but for The Perilous Gard, exceptions can be made. Elizabeth Marie Pope’s enthralling historical fantasy follows a headstrong lady-in-waiting exiled to a remote English manor, where certain places are forbidden and certain townsfolk still believe in fairies — and not the cute flying Tinkerbell kind, either. True to the original tale, these fairies are all about human sacrifice, and anyone interested in Celtic lore or reinterpretations of the “Tam Lin” story will find plenty to love in this novel.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire
After revolutionizing the way the world sees The Wizard of Oz with Wicked, Gregory Maguire decided to rehabilitate another misunderstood literary villain with Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. These versions of Cinderella’s ‘wicked’ stepsisters have their own distinctly-drawn motives, and the book’s deft handling of mental illness is both interesting and commendable.
What’s your favorite fairytale retelling, reimagining, or reinterpretation? Leave us some recommendations in the comments!