A few weeks ago, Will and I picked The Princess Bride for family movie night. Selecting the right movie to satisfy six very different viewers is no easy task, but all of my kids loved this 1980s classic. I have my theories about why The Princess Bride makes for such a satisfying family movie experience. For one, the story is familiar, reminiscent of the fairytales we’ve heard over and over. Yet it offers enough subversions to keep the viewer’s interest—not to mention the perfectly-timed, hilarious moments and wordplay.
Around the world, every culture has myths, legends, and fairytales we tell over and over. We use a familiar pattern because they’re better remembered that way.
As an adult reader, I still enjoy fairytales, though I rarely open a collection of the original Grimm Brothers versions. (And I mean original original—because I studied German, I read those in the original language!) These days I’m fond of retellings that put a new twist on familiar tropes with unexpected settings, gender-swapped roles, or surprising plot changes. The results illuminate overlooked themes and interesting connections to our modern world. The stories are familiar, but the lessons we learn from retellings feel fresh.
Today I’m sharing a mix of my favorite fairytale retellings, plus some enchanting books on my To Be Read list. I’ve included a mix of Grimm Brothers retellings, folklore, and fable-inspired stories with a distinct fairytale feel.
Each book in the YA fantasy series The Lunar Chronicles puts a new spin on an old fairy tale. In this first installment, Cinderella becomes a kickass mechanic, despised by her mother and stepsisters because she’s a cyborg. Admittedly, it sounds cheesy, but it works. Though it’s clear where the story is headed, spotting the imaginative ways Meyer reinvents the old fairy tale kept me turning the pages. It took some convincing for me to pick this one up, and I'm so glad I did. Fresh, fun, surprising, and compulsively readable. More info →
I loved this magic-infused story about love, loss, and the wildness of nature, based on a wintery fairytale. (Hear more about the book's origins in One Great Book Volume IV Book 6). It's Alaska, 1920, the night of the first snowfall, which inspires a typically serious couple to indulge in a bit of silliness: they build a child out of snow, just for fun. In the morning, the snow child is gone, but, in a way that eerily mirrors a much-loved fairy tale, the couple spies a young girl they've never seen before running through the trees. From there, a magical and tender story unfolds. More info →
A trip to Moscow left such an impression on Katherine Arden that when she sat down to write her book, "Russia came pouring back out." In this reimagined fairy tale, set in medieval Russia amongst snowy landscapes and magical forests, a young girl with a special gift attempts to save her family from the evil lurking in the woods. This spin on the Baba Yaga stories reminded me of Naomi Novik's Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and anything Neil Gaiman. More info →
This dark fairytale takes place in modern day Manhattan and resembles a collection of Grimm's fairytales woven together. Alice and her mom have spent 17 years on the run, trying to dodge the persistent bad luck mysteriously connected to an unnerving book of stories penned by Alice's estranged grandmother. When Alice's grandmother dies, her mother thinks they're free—until the day Alice comes home from school to discover Ella has been kidnapped, leaving behind a page torn from her grandmother's book and a note: Stay away from the Hazel Wood. But Alice has to save her mom, so she enters what she slowly begins to see is her grandmother's book of stories-come-to-life—and they suddenly look a lot more like horror than fantasy. This seriously twisted and sometimes bloody fairy tale reminds me of The Thirteenth Tale, with a dash of The Matrix. More info →
I couldn't put this one down, and I recommended it to Keren on episode 193 of What Should I Read Next because of its clever twist on a familiar story. Harper, a modern day 17 year old girl, is going through a terrible time when she gets sucked into a fantasy world. Prince Rhen, heir to the throne of Emberfall, is cursed, turns into a beast, and destroys everything he holds dear (sound familiar?). This Beauty and the Beast retelling is delightfully modern, features a character with cerebral palsy, and straddles reality and fantasy in a refreshing way. More info →
From the author of Snow White retelling Girls Made of Snow and Glass, a brilliantly imagined fairy tale featuring dangerous demons, poisonous girls, and a kingdom in peril, inspired by the Persian epic the Shahnameh. The cursed princess Soraya has been living inside her family’s palace walls—touching no one—for eighteen years. As her twin brother’s wedding day approaches, the palace guards capture a demon who may be able to tell her how to break the curse and gain her freedom. But the answers she seeks plunge her into personal crisis and political intrigue, and Soraya is soon forced to question everything she thought she knew about herself—while facing choices that may endanger not just her own fate, but that of the entire kingdom. More info →
A brand new Cinderella retelling! I'm intrigued. Set 200 years after Cinderella marries her prince, the annual ball still serves as a matchmaking event. However, if the young women who attend don't make a match, they disappear. Sophia flees the ball early, hiding out in the castle's mausoleum where she meets Constance, a descendant of Cinderella who encourages Sophia to question everything. They create a plot to take down the patriarchal kingdom, learning more about their society as their plan unfolds. I love this book's cover, and I'm hoping for a fun page-turner. More info →
The original Goose Girl fairytale is about a young woman caught between two worlds. A princess unwittingly swaps places with a maid and is forced to live as a servant, guarding the geese of the castle. Intisar Khhanani's retelling features an evil sorceress rather than a wily maid, who takes away Alyrra's identity and interrupts her marriage to Prince Kestrin. Alyrra works as a goose girl, and as she gets to know Kestrin without the trappings of her royal identity, she realizes she must take back her identity in order to save him, and the kingdom, from the evil sorceress. A satisfying retelling with Islamic culture and traditions seamlessly woven throughout the story. More info →
An absorbing retelling of One Thousand and One Nights. Khalid, 18-year-old ruler of Khorasan, marries a new bride every night—but come morning, his bride is found dead. Seeking vengeance for the death of her friend, Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid and take his life to save the kingdom. Every night, she tells Khalid enchanting stories to hold his attention and stay alive another day. The more time Shahrzad spends at the palace, the more secrets she uncovers—and the more trust she builds with Khalid. As her feelings grow, her choices get more and more complicated. More info →
This mash-up of Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Swan Lake feels wholly unique. Blanca and Roja del Cisne couldn't be more different, but they share a generations-old connection with a bevy of swans. They've been warned that someday the swans will endanger their lives with a precarious game, leaving one girl trapped in the body of a swan. When two neighbor boys get involved in the spell, the mysterious magic moves in unpredictable ways—weaving their fates together in a story that reads like an enchanting walk through the woods. More info →
A few weeks ago, my husband and I introduced our kids to The Princess Bride for movie night, and they loved it! I'm excited to pick up this gender-swapped retelling, in which the princess rescues the stable boy. At sixteen, Amarande wants to be a warrior, not a pawn in her kingdom's politics. After refusing an arranged marriage, a neighboring kingdom kidnaps her true love to trap her into a wedding. Of course Amarande won't let this go down without a fight, but she needs bravery and skill to save her love and the entire kingdom. While you wait for the next book in the series, pick up Henning's Little Mermaid retelling, The Sea Witch. More info →
A delightfully dark take on The Twelve Dancing Princesses that keeps the gruesome tone of the Grimm brothers' tale. Annaleigh and her sisters live in Highmoor, a grand mansion by the sea. It should be a romantic and peaceful place, but four deaths haunt its halls, each more bone-chilling than the last. The sisters grieve, and the town spreads rumors. When visited by ghosts, Annaleigh starts to suspect that the deaths weren't accidental. Her remaining sisters keep sneaking out to dance at night, and Annaleigh is torn between discouraging their adventure or joining them to investigate. The mystery is further complicated by a stranger shrouded in secrets. More info →
A more realistic take on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, set in glittering 1920s Manhattan. Jo leads her sisters out of the house each night to dance at the speakeasy. They dance and party, avoiding their father's control until one night when the girls get caught in a raid at their favorite club, the Kingfisher. When they get separated, Jo comes face to face with a familiar bootlegger. The story follows Jo as she navigates personal choices while balancing the pressure of caring for her family. A less magical but still charming spin on the fairytale. More info →
This ambitious fairytale tackles antisemitism and builds a beautifully unique world, while threading the original Rumpelstiltskin tale through the story. With six different narrators, it may take you a few chapters to get acclimated, but patience is rewarded with a tale of two kingdoms, an impossible challenge, a peasant girl, and a high-stakes quest. Novik manages to tackle timely themes in a completely enchanting fairytale. I love my magical reads with a dose of realism, and this one delivers. More info →
After enjoying Mexican Gothic on audio, I'm eager to pick up more of Moreno-Garcia's backlist. This jazz-age fairytale is inspired by Mexican folklore. Casiopea Tun spends her days cleaning her wealthy grandfather's home, but she dreams of escaping to start a new life. One day, she opens a strange wooden box in her grandfather's room, unleashing the spirit of the Mayan god of death. He makes her an offer: help him take the throne from his brother who betrayed him and earn the life of your dreams. Casiopea can't resist the allure of adventure, even if failure would surely lead to death. She sets out on a journey that takes her far away from home and into the Mayan underworld. More info →
A fangirl fairytale? Yes, please. Around here, we use terms like "geek" and "nerd" with affection. This Cinderella retelling celebrates geek and fandom culture with a delightful romance and plenty of quirky nerd references. Elle Wittimer lives for Starfield, a classic sci-fi show (think Star Trek). She enters a cosplay contest to win a ticket to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball, and to meet the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in a reboot of the famous series. But will her stepsisters get in the way? Meanwhile, actor Darien Freeman struggles to accept his newfound fame—until he meets a superfan that changes his mind. More info →
This Alice in Wonderland retelling sounds intense. After a near-death experience, Alice trains to combat monsters in the dark, dream-like Wonderland. But in real life, she's a regular teen with an overprotective mom and a sliding GPA. She doesn't have time for her best friend or school when fighting the Nightmares takes up all of her free time. When her mentor is poisoned, she must leave real-world Atlanta behind and travel deep into Wonderland, further than she's ever gone before. A kick-ass heroine (literally) and an action-packed retelling. More info →
This Sleeping Beauty retelling is part of McKinley's Folktales series, a well-loved collection of retellings for fairytale fans. The premise is familiar: an evil fairy curses a princess to prick her finger and sleep and endless sleep. McKinley adds a few surprising twists to the original tale, but the magic is in the detailed world she creates with vivid descriptions of the setting and creatures. The narration makes this feel like a classic fairytale. More info →
The legendary myths of King Arthur might not be considered traditional fairytales, but magical quests land them in the same category for me. This retelling of the famous Excalibur legend takes place in outer space. Ari is deemed the next incarnation of King Arthur after crashing to earth and pulling a sword from the stone. Soon, she meets Merlin and they embark on a quest to take down not a mythical creature but an evil and oppressive government. And a curse, for good measure. More info →
An East Asian fantasy that reimagines the legend of The Evil Queen, a common character in many fairytales. Xifeng is a beautiful young woman destined for greatness. Her aunt, a witch named Guma, has read her future. If Xifeng allows herself to be pulled towards darkness, she has a chance to become the Empress of Feng Lu. Is she willing to sacrifice love, happiness, and magic for the throne? This twisted fantasy will have you questioning who to root for as ambition and evil go hand in hand. More info →
Do you have a favorite fairytale retelling, or perhaps a myth or legend? Do share in the comments, and help us build our TBR lists.