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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Tag Tuesday: A Few Tags I’ve Been Meaning To Do

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic was:

March 16: Books On My Spring 2021 TBR

But I didn’t want to do yet another TBR, so I decided to clear up some tags that I’ve been meaning to do.

The first is the Get To Know The Fantasy Reader tag which was originally created by Bree Hill I found it on Hundreds and Thousands of Books

The Questions

What is your fantasy origin story? (The first fantasy you read)

I honesty don’t know which one I first read. I read fairy tales obsessively as a child. When I loved a story I’d seek out as many versions of it as I could find, and compare and contrast them. (Yes, I was like 5 at the time!)

If you could be the hero/heroine in a fantasy novel, who would be the author and what’s one trope you’d insist be in the story?

Hmm… That’s an interesting question. I’d want it to be someone who wouldn’t do anything too terrible to a hero or heroine, so that leaves out a lot of authors! Maybe I’d go with Eva Ibbotson. Her fantasy books are intended mostly for younger readers, and while enough happens to make them interesting to an older audience, it’s usually nothing terrible to characters we like! As for tropes, I’d like to be the “Lucky Novice” whose never done something before, or done something with minimal training, and can do it really well. I usually have to practice a lot to be even halfway decent at something!

What is a fantasy series you’ve read this year, that you want more people to read?

This year is still fairly young and I haven’t read that many fantasy series yet. I suppose I’ll highlight Fairy Godmothers Inc., which is the first in the Fairy Godmothers, Inc. series. But it’s got a major caveat: while I think the series has potential I didn’t like the first book. I found the two main characters to be awful, separately and together. I say the series has potential though because it seems like the kind of thing that follows different characters in each book. It’s about three fairy godmothers living in the magical town of Ever After, Missouri. Love is the source of the magic in their world, but it’s running low. They decided to help attract more love to the town of Ever After by making it a popular wedding destination. But they need some help promoting it. They ask their goddaughter Lucky (who tends to have terrible luck!) a popular artist, to fake-marry their godson (and her ex) Ransom Payne (a billionaire who runs a chocolate company) in a high profile ceremony. Lucky and Ransom both agree because they want to help their beloved godmothers, but they are both the most annoying characters I’ve read in a long time. But the book is clearly setting up for a series set in Ever After, revolving around Fairy Godmothers, Inc. The residents of Ever After include Red and her werewolf Grammy, a frog prince named “Charming”, a reformed evil queen, and more. I don’t recommend it yet, because as I said I didn’t like the first book. But I think it has the potential to be a feel good, fun series, so I’ll give it another chance.

What is your favourite fantasy subgenre? 

Ummm, I can’t choose! I’ll say that fantasy inspired by fairy tales; even though that can fall into several different subgenres. After all, Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series which is sci-fi oriented, but is fairy tale inspired. Meanwhile Juliet Marillier’s work is also fairy tale/legend inspired but it tends have a strong historical setting. The Fairy Godmothers, Inc series I mention above seems like it also draws heavily from fairy tales, but it has a light, magical realist tone. So I guess “fairy tale inspired fantasy” allows me to cheat and pick lots of different subgenres!

What subgenre have you not read much from?

I don’t read much in the way of Sword and Sorcery. I’m not really into reading about straight out battles and violent conflicts most of the time. I prefer more subtle rivalries. But there are exceptions to every rule.

Who is one of your auto-buy fantasy authors?

Just one?! I’ll say Juliet Marillier. I’ve read some books of hers that I’ve liked more than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that I disliked.

How do you typically find fantasy recommendations? (Goodreads, Youtube, Podcasts, Instagram..)

All of the above. There are some bloggers whose opinions I trust, and I look at what my friends are reading on Goodreads mostly though.

What is an upcoming fantasy release you’re excited for?

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley is described as “Jamaica Inn by way of Jeff Vandermeer, Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter and Michel Faber” so that’s a big “yes, please!” from me.

What is one misconception about fantasy you would like to lay to rest?

I suppose I’d have to differentiate between reading fantasy and writing fantasy for this one. For reading, I’d say the notion that it’s only for kids has to go. Yes, you can absolutely have fantasy intended for children. But the genre can often get dark, violent, subversive, and disturbing. In other words, not for children at all! In terms of writing, I’ll say that the idea that fantasy writing requires no research needs to die. There’s a lot of research involved. I rant about it a bit in this post.

If someone had never read a fantasy before and asked you to recommend the first 3 books that come to mind as places to start, what would those recommendations be?

This is a tough one!

I wouldn’t do series because that’s a commitment and some don’t get really good until quite a ways in. I also think some classics of the genre tend to be too dense for beginners. Plus those always come with high expectations. So I’ll go with

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson– This books is a relatively easy, quick read, that uses a lot of the tropes that Harry Potter does, in a stand alone story.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern– I recommend this one because it’s a stand alone of reasonable length that introduces readers to a more magic realist variation on fantasy. Plus I think Morgenstern beautifully engages the reader’s senses.

-The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker- This gets into the mythical creates of two different traditions and draws them together in a historical setting. It’s a great example of how fantasy can draw on different sources, and set itself in the “real” world. I actually see now that there’s a sequel that’s coming out in June, but I think it works as a stand alone, if someone chooses to read it that way.

I’ve also been meaning to tackle The Classic Book Tag, which I first encountered on BookwyrmKnits blog. It was originally created by It’s A Book World.

An overhyped classic that you didn’t really like

The one that jumps to my mind is War and Peace. I read it in college in a freshman seminar that explored the themes of war and peace in general. It wasn’t the worst book I read in that class (Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, I’m looking at you!) but after some really dense stuff, I was sort of looking forward to getting into a novel. Besides which, I actually enjoy big, sweeping, epic stories,. But nothing about the narrative or the characters grabbed me. My professor said that Tolstoy was “a great writer, who needed a great editor.” While I think that’s true, I think some of his writing is more compelling in other work. Here he gets to bogged down in extraneous stuff.

Favorite time period to read about

I’m a fan of the Victorian era, which is a pretty long era, spanning Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901. A lot of my favorite writers of days past (the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins) were of this time period.

Favorite fairy tale

I was recently asked this question in an interview I did with F H Denny. I hope no one minds if I copy/paste this from my answer!

To be honest I think Beauty and the Beast has always been a favorite. I love almost every version I’ve read/seen (yes, including Disney!) It’s strange that one of the elements that always appealed to me was the forgotten, enchanted, castle where the Beast lives, but that’s an element that I didn’t include in my retelling at all!

I go on to talk about some pitfalls I wanted to avoid in my own work, so read the interview if that interests you. But I do think that the “gothicness” of the story always appealed to me. The brooding hero, who seems like a villain at first, the abandoned, enchanted castle…

What is the classic you are most embarrassed you haven’t read yet

I try not to be too embarrassed about not having read certain books yet. I mean, having new books to read (even when they’re not technically “new”) is one of life’s great joys, isn’t it? I consider myself pretty well read, but I’ve only been on earth so long, and there are other things I’ve had to do!

There are a few books I feel like I should have gotten to by now though. One of them is Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I think what’s stopped me so far from reading it, is the fact that it’s considered depressing, even by Hardy’s standards! I think he’s a beautiful writer, but he can be kind of a downer, and lately I haven’t felt up to tackling anything like that.

I was in a recent book club discussion where someone mentioned Moby Dick and I realized I’ve never read that before either. I’m not sure if I want to. Part of me wants to read it, if only to say I did, but another part figures “why bother? There so much out there I actually want to read!” Any advice from anyone who’s read it?

Top 5 classics you would like to read soon

Well there are many, many classics that I’d like to reread. But in addition to those I’d like to get to these for the first time:

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay- I really like the film adaptation and I’ve always found the story to be very intriguing.

The Lark by E. Nesbit- I’ve enjoyed E. Nesbit’s books for children and I’d like to read some of her work for adults as well.

Armadale by Wilkie Collins- I’ve really enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ other work that I’ve read. The is the only one of his “major” novels that I haven’t read yet.

Maggie-Now by Betty Smith- Again this is a case of me having liked the author’s other work, and wanting to read more of it.

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf- I’ve always liked Virginia Woolf best as an essayist so I definitely want to get to this at some point.

Favorite modern book/series based on a classic

So many wonderful choices… Can’t decide on just one…

I’ll go with two books by one author: Circe and Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s strange that I loved these books even though I’m not a big fan of the Greek classics on which they were based! I discuss them in this post for anyone interested.

Favorite movie version/tv-series based on a classic

Again, I feel almost like my head is about to explode from so many choices! I’m going to cheat and pick one movie and one tv series.

For film, I’m going with an adaptation of Little Women. I know the Greta Gerwig adaptation was really popular recently, but I actually prefer the 1994 adaptation. Not only is it a beautifully made film with an excellent cast, but it focuses on the story and characters, and not some of the more pedantic aspects that Louisa May Alcott got bogged down with at times. It emphasizes some of the politics and philosophy in which Louisa May Alcott (and her father, Amos Bronson Alcott) strongly believed, but it never espouses these ideas at the expense of the narrative. Rather, it highlights the moments that the narrative espouses these ideas.

For a TV series, I’m going to go with the 2005 BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It’s an eight episode miniseries, that manages to convey the epic scope of the novel, without getting bogged down in the minutia. Some of Dickens’ work easily lends itself to adaptation. This book isn’t one of them. I’m very fond of it. In fact, I might call it a favorite, but the plot, surrounding a chancery court case doesn’t lend itself to big, dramatic scenes or spectacle. Some of the twists and turns may even seem contrived to 21st century readers/viewers. However this series manages to make it compelling drama with a strong cast. It also manages to recreate the dark, well, bleak, atmosphere of Dickens’ novel in a way that works cinematically.

Worst classic to movie adaptation

The one that comes to mind first is the 1995 adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. The book was about the cruelty of public shaming and punishment, guilt, and pain. The movie features a Hollywoodized romance that changes the ending and in the process ends up contradicting the message of the book. It also features a very miscast (IMO) Demi Moore.

Favorite edition(s) you’d like to collect more classics from

I think that Virago Modern Classics are very pretty, and they include a lot of lesser known, underrated classic works. Ditto for Persephone Books. I don’t want to replace all my classics with fancy elaborate editions tough. I like the mishmash of classics that line my walls, with my notes in them, and places I’ve dog-eared still creased a bit. It always annoys me a bit when people have classic editions that look like they haven’t been opened!

An under-hyped classic you would recommend to someone

I’m going to push for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. She’s often overlooked in favor of her sisters (which is easy to happen when your sisters are Emily and Charlotte Bronte!) and even Lucasta Miller’s book, The Bronte Myth, dismissed her in a few sentences. But her work was just as strong in it’s own way, as that of either of her sisters. I love how angry she looks in the family portrait that’s on the book cover next to this text. I always imagine her saying “How dare you overlook me! I’m brilliant!”

Favorite (Non-Disney) Fairy Tale Films

A lot of us are stuck indoors for the near future. We’re isolated. We’re anxious.  So we need fairy tales. As much as I love Disney, I decided to highlight some of my favorite films based on fairy tales that are not Disney-made or styled. Be warned, some of these are kid friendly but some aren’t. I put a * next to the ones that are OK for most kiddos, and a ! next to the ones that should be fine for kids above 12, but you might use caution with younger ones. If I don’t put a symbol next to it, I’d suggest sticking to adults audiences.

Beauty and the Beast

beauty-and-the-beast-1946-granger! La Belle et La Bete (1946) Jean Cocteau begins this film by imploring his audience to watch it with the eyes of a child- to regain that sense of wonder and imagination. He then plunges the audience into a magical world full of stunning practical effects, mystery and magic. There are allusions to other tales, and you can read into it from different perspectives and make a lot of arguments about subtext. Or you can do as Cocteau asks, and watch it from the a child’s point of view, and be enchanted. [trailer]

edward-scissorhands-1! Edward Scissorhands (1990) This is a movie takes place in a world that is in some ways very like our own. But the town  in the film is overshadowed by a mysterious, seemingly abandoned fairy tale castle. When make-up saleslady, Peg, knocks on the door she finds Edward, a naive fellow with scissors instead of hands, she takes pity on him and brings him home to stay with her and her family. Her daughter, Kim is initially not happy that her mom has brought home this strange young man. But Edward unwittingly finds a place in her heart. The fairy tale feel here is very stylized, and once again there’s lots of metaphor, but there’s  not need to go there unless you want to. There’s plenty to enjoy on a surface level. [trailer]

Cinderella

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Moviestillsdb.com

*Cinderella (1957 Television Production) – In 1957 this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was televised live with the incomparable Julie Andrews in the title role. The telefilm was remade in 1965 with Leslie Ann Warren and in 1997 with Brandy. It also did a stint on Broadway in 2013. But if you can deal with black and white picture, this is the best for my money. [trailer -fanmade]

the-slipper-and-the-rose-3*The Slipper and the Rose(1976) This lavish musical film adds depth the Cinderella story while still maintaining a kid-friendly fairy tale feel. We still have a fairy godmother, the stroke of midnight, and step families. But we also see the royals worried about outside attack, and some of the challenges that face Cinderella and her prince after he identifies her by her glass slipper. It’s also got some great tunes from the Sherman Brothers, beautiful costumes, and settings. [trailer]

6db5c710-0eab-469a-a4fa-e4ad9d6706c5! Ever After (1999) This Cinderella story eschews the magic in favor of a historical setting. But it still manages to include the ball, the glass slipper and Leonardo DaVinci in the fairy godmother role. We also see a more rebellious Cinderella who works hard for her own reasons (not because her stepmother demands it) and isn’t afraid to tell her stepmother to shove it. [trailer]

The Little Mermaid

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moviesstillsdb.com

!Splash (1984) Some may argue that this 80’s fish out of water (literally) comedy has little in common with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale. On the surface they’d be right. But there’s a mermaid in love with a human. She can’t speak (until she leans how in this), and gives up the sea to be with her beloved on land. Or you could just enjoy this funny, sexy, 80’s rom com for exactly what it is. [trailer]

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Ondine (2009) This actually has more in common with several other water spirit/selkie tales than it does with The Little Mermaid, but I’m including it here for the sake of ease. Syracuse is a fisherman in Ireland. One day he catches a beautiful woman in his net.  His daughter believes that she’s a selkie, and as he and the woman fall in love, he starts to think that the fantastical might just be true. But the woman, whom they call Ondine, had a life before she turned up in Syracuse’s nets. And that life might threaten everything she’s built with Syracuse and Annie. [trailer]

The Red Shoes

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thesouloftheplot.wordpress.com

! The Red Shoes (1948) This movie retells Hans Christian Anderson’s story of The Red Shoes. Here we have a ballerina who is thrust into a backstage drama, when she’s torn between a handsome composer and the ruthless ballet instructor who demands her total dedication to her craft. The film features stunning technicolor visuals and a gorgeous ballet within a film, that tells Anderson’s tale against the backdrop of this tragic romantic triangle.  [trailer]

Red Riding Hood

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damonart.com

The Company of Wolves (1984) If you read my blog, you probably have a sense of how much I admire Angela Carter. This film is based on several of her Red Riding Hood stories as well as themes that pervade her fiction. The film deals with a teenage girl who has vivid dreams about werewolves. The movie weaves in and out of dreamscapes and stories. It’s lurid, stylized and has some (intentionally?) cringe-worthy effects, but also some interesting elements and a perfectly cast Angela Lansbury as Grandmother. [trailer]

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moviesstillsdb.com

Freeway (1996) This film features a teen delinquent on the run from social services. She travels to her grandmother’s house while being  stalked by a serial killer. It’s campy and darkly humorous, but also features some satirical criticism of our justice system and a the racial and class dynamics in the United States. [trailer]

Snow White

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awn.com

!Ball of Fire (1941) Snow White gets an old Hollywood screwball comedy treatment in this film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. Betram Potts is one of seven professors living and working together on a dictionary. When they realize that they’re unfamiliar with contemporary slang, they head to a nightclub to expose themselves to it. There they meet Sugarpuss O’Shea, the girlfriend of a gangster. She needs to hide out, and the seven professors live far enough from the realm of normal people to give her the perfect place to hide. She might just make it out alive, if she doesn’t fall for Bertram… [trailer]

Sleeping Beauty

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fanpop.com

Elvis and Anabelle (2007)- Anabelle is a small town beauty queen who dies. Elvis runs the town mortuary with his dad, the mortician. When Anabelle ends up on the table in the morgue, Elvis sneaks a quick kiss before he begins his work, and is really surprised when Anabelle suddenly wakes up! Anabelle convinces Elvis to keep quiet about her resurrection for a few days, and  they start to fall in love. But their real world issues could keep them apart.  [trailer]

Does anyone else have any other recommendations for fairy tale movies that aren’t necessarily for kids?