Why Are Fairy Tale Retellings Popular With A YA Audience?

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I had a conversation about this recently, and it got me thinking: why are fairy tale retellings so popular with YA readers?

First of all, I know that fairy tale retellings have an audience within all age groups. Some of the retellings for very young children tend to be the sanitized Disney type stuff we all grew up with. But there are many, many exceptions to that with fairy tales from around the world, retellings with unique illustrations, and even some scary stuff that might give some little ones nightmares. By the time they enter the middle grade reading group, kids have access to a wide variety of retellings from authors like Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, Anne Ursu, Vivian Vande Velde and many others.

But fairy tales have really exploded in popularity with a teen audience. Let’s just look at the variety of genres that have fairy tale retellings:

Sci-Fi

Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer

A Long, Long Sleep by Anne Sheehan

Stitching Snow and Spinning Starlight by RC Lewis

Contemporary

Ashley Poston’s Once Upon A Con series

Cindy Ella, Geek Charming, Wickedly Jealous, and Little Miss Red by Robin Palmer

Alex Flinn’s Kendra Chronicles

LGBT

Ash by Malinda Lo

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Historical Fantasy

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

East by Edith Pattou

Stepsister and Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly

These are just a few of many examples. And, of course, there’s plenty of crossover: books that encompass more than one of those genres. So it certainly seems like fairy tales are being aimed at teens regardless of the genres to which they gravitate. Why is that?

Well first of all, I think that fairy tales are universal. They’re made for people. That’s why we can find interesting fairy tale inspired work for all age groups. But since we’re looking specifically at teens, let’s think about it this way:

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Teens are in a liminal space. They’re between childhood and adulthood. In some ways they’re expected to handle very adult burdens and responsibilities, but they still have a lot of the needs that they had when they were younger: security, consistency, a sense of safety. Obviously the extent to which these statements are true differs from one person to another, but I’m making a broad generalization here.

Fairy tales are about liminal spaces. Think about the action of fairy tales. The main character leaves home (a safe space) and goes on some kind of a quest. They journey will take them to dangerous places (the enchanted castle, the monster’s lair) but it will also take them through transitional spaces. The real growth takes place on the journey, of course.

The way we view fairy tales is also in transition. In their older versions many tales are dark and disturbing. Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle says: “Originally for adults (sometimes for children), fairy tales can be brutal, violent, sexual and laden with taboo.” They deal with fears and insecurities, as well as hopes and dreams. As different people have collected and compiled these stories for different reasons, they’ve made changes to suit their intended audience. In the 20th century, Disney’s animated films shaped how a lot of people saw these stories: as brightly colored, tuneful children’s tales. And they can be that. But they can also be very dark. People are starting to recognize that fairy tales are not always the friendly childhood tales that we think about. Retellings, in all forms, are starting to recognize and resurrect some of the complexity that fairy tales once had.

Yet in spite of this dark content, there is a lot of simplicity in fairy tales. Characters tend to be good or evil. They teach moral lessons. Those lessons are absolutely good for children to learn, yes. But as they venture into the world, teens are confronted (many for the first time) with ambiguity, with doubt, with ethical dilemmas. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim says:

The child needs ideas on how to put his inner house in order and, on this basis, to be able to establish an order to life in general. The child needs – and this hardly requires emphasis at this moment in our present history – a moral education that subtly conveys the advantages of moral conduct, not through abstract ethical concepts, but through what seems tangibly correct and, therefore, meaningful for the child.

This is just as true for teens as it is for young children, if not more so.

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But despite the clear lines between good and evil that’s typical of the form, fairy tales also have a sense of moral ambiguity to them. That’s something that starts to emerge as our thinking matures. Sometimes we do sympathize with the wicked queen who is so afraid of aging and losing the beauty that defines her, that she lashes out at her innocent step-daughter. We can also find fault with the heroes. When the prince kisses the sleeping princess (usually a stranger to him) we might not think about it much as children. But as we grow and learn and mature, that can becoming very troubling.

Therefore fairy tales have an “in betweenness” to them that makes them great for people in a transitional point of life. Goddard Blythe, a child psychologist, says: “Fairy tales are important not because they show children how life is, but because they give form to deep fears and dreams about life through fantasy. Life is looming for teens even more than younger children. The transition from child to adult is more immediate, and it’s natural to have some anxiety about that. Fairy tales can act as a canvas on which that anxiety can play out. Naturally teens have a wide range of interests. Different kinds of settings and genres appeal to different people. Therefore YA fairy tale retellings are giving teens the stories they need in the styles (whatever those may be) that they enjoy.

What’s your opinion? Agree? Disagree? Have the fairy tales that appeal to you changed from childhood to adolescence to adulthood?

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9 thoughts on “Why Are Fairy Tale Retellings Popular With A YA Audience?

  1. What a fascinating piece! (And thank you for the various scholars you wove in this as well. I wanted to say I noted and appreciated the research source work :D.) I love how you’ve pointed out the Disney versions are, in fact, retellings themselves. I think we almost instinctively see them as the original versions because we often encounter them first. But it’s important to recognize them as retellings! And in that connection we have with the Disney versions we see how important retellings and casting a story for a particular audience can be.

    As I read this, your argument made me think of Joseph Campbell. When he writes of the chief themes of ancient mythology one of the themes he discusses is marking and helping children transition into adulthood. We’ve always had and needed stories (as well as rites) for that. And these fairy tale retellings are performing that function! When you framed them in this light it made perfect sense to me why teens would gravitate to them. We’ve looked to stories to help us make that transition since prehistory! And now, in a diverse/secular culture without unified mythic metanarratives, something has to fill that void.

    I know this comment got a little lengthy but this is such an exciting post! I’m going to be mulling over its implications for days. Thank you for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you liked it! Initially I’d planned on making this a much shorter post, but as I wrote it my thinking kept going off in different directions. So I’d do some research and discover something interesting and the whole process would start again. When you put a lot of work and thought into a post, it’s really nice to get a comment like yours, so thank you!

      Liked by 2 people

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