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New Tales from Old: Adult Fairy Tales for YA Lit Lovers

2013 February 26
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These illustrations came from:Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm. Kay Nielsen, illustrator. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925.

Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm. Kay Nielsen, illustrator. 1925.

Today is Tell A Fairy Tale Day, a possibly-made-up-by-the-Internet day, but a worthwhile and exciting day nonetheless. In honor of such an auspicious occasion, and in an attempt to put a slightly different spin  on the topic, here are a handful of adult re-tellings that fans of YA literature are sure to find compelling. One caveat: these are adult books. Obviously that label has much less to do with any inherent level of sophistication and more to do with marketing (and possibly content) since we here all know just how complex and excellent YA novels can be. Most, but not all, of these books feature teen (or at least young adult) protagonists, but all were published as adult titles, and some are quite dark, forthright, and potentially disturbing, just like many of the best fairy tales. In other words, for many of these, think Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels rather than Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted.

That said, may I suggest you celebrate Tell A Fairy Tale Day by curling up with one of the following. (All fairy tale links are to the original tales as presented by the extraordinary Sur La Lune Fairy Tales site.)

daughter of the forestDaughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier (The Six Swans)

As the youngest daughter of Lord Colum, Sorcha is adored and protected by her six older brothers, until the day their new stepmother casts a terrible spell that turns the brothers into swans.  Steeped in Celtic lore and the historical clash of paganism and early Christianity, this is a gritty, grounded fantasy (the first in a series) that stays true to its roots while greatly expanding the original tale.

For a completely different take on the Six Swans/Wild Swans tale, try Peg Kerr’s The Wild Swans.

jack of kinrowanJack of Kinrowan by Charles de Lint (Jack and the Beanstalk)

One of the novels in Terri Windling’s exceptional adult Fairy Tale series, this volume brings together de Lint’s Jack the Giant-Killer and its sequel, Drink Down the Moon, offering the complete story of Jacky Rowan, a young woman dragged into the Faerie realm by the Wild Hunt, a gang of Harley-riding bikers who tear through modern day Ottawa. Hailed as the trickster Jack of Kinrowan, Jacky and her friend Kate Crackernuts find themselves on a quest to find a kidnapped princess and save the Elven Courts.

It’s tempting to include all the titles in the Fairy Tale series, but instead I’ll just point you to this list (scan down a bit) and say that all of them are excellent.

snow white and rose redSnow White and Rose Red by Patricia Wrede (Snow White and Rose Red)

Ok, one more from the Fairy Tale series. Despite the omnipresent fear of being accused of witchcraft, Blanche and Rosamund help their mother, the Widow Arden, gather the herbs she uses for her healing brews, even occasionally straying across the border to Faerie. Tracked by Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer, Doctor Dee, the sisters soon find themselves drawn into the troubles of two princes of the Faerie realm, one of whom is currently, and unfortunately, a bear. Wrede offers a fairly straightforward re-telling—with inspired embellishments—along with the added bonus of skillful and evocative period language.

beautyBeauty by Sherri Tepper (Sleeping Beauty)

Like the tale of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty begins with a curse, but then it veers off into completely unexpected directions: dystopian science fiction, time travel, the extremely boring land of storybook tales, feminist theory, and environmental disaster. This is not an easy novel, but Beauty’s journey — through time, by way of Hell, courtesy of the Sidhe — is ultimately (after a whole lot of horror) full of hope.

(Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment offers a unique Russian-tinged take on Sleeping Beauty.)

Deerskin by Robin McKinley (Donkeyskindeerskin)

In her first novel for adults, McKinley takes inspiration from Charles Perrault’s “Donkeyskin,” the tale of a beautiful princess with her dead mother’s face. Driven to madness by lust and obsession, Princess Lissla Lissar’s father attacks her on the night of her 17th birthday.  Brutalized and barely alive, she flees her kingdom, accompanied by her beloved dog Ash, and disappears into the wilderness to heal. For Lissar, part of healing is forgetting, and when she enters into service working in the kennel of another king, she has no memory of her royal origin.

forests of serreIn the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip (The Firebird)

Devastated at the death of his wife and newborn child, Prince Ronan experiences another blow — in the form of a witches curse — after he runs down a white chicken on his way home from war.  Unwilling to wed again and desperate to find the enchanted firebird he glimpsed outside the castle, Ronan enters the Forest of Serre, unknowingly meets his betrothed, Princess Sidonie, and loses — literally — his heart.

tam linTam Lin by Pamela Dean (Tam Lin)

I can’t resist, possibly because I have read this book an embarrassing number of times. Dean’s entry in the Fairy Tale series is actually an adaptation of a Scottish ballad, but I think it still counts. Janet is a new student at Blackstock College, a small but elite Midwestern liberal arts college. Along with her new roommates Molly and Tina, Janet navigates the uncertain and often perilous paths of college life, made slightly more treacherous due to the fact that there’s something very unusual — and possibly fantastic — going on in the Classics Department.  Tam Lin is a leisurely and precise tale of young adulthood with an extraordinary ending.

(For a completely different and ethereal take on Tam Lin, try Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose.)

armless maidenThe Armless Maiden, edited by Terri Windling

There are many excellent fairy tale anthologies — many of them, in fact, edited by Terri Windling — but the Armless Maiden is a book apart. Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Louise Gluck, Peter Straub, Patricia A. McKillip, Lynda Barry, and many more contribute fairy tale-inspired stories and poems centered around the difficult, heartbreaking, and most unfortunately necessary theme of childhood abuse. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are present, as are the Grimm’s Brother and Sister, and Anderson’s The Little Match Girl. Horrifying, painful, intense, the offerings here are not always easy to read, but they are beautifully written, revelatory, and healing.

If short stories or poetry is what you wish for, try The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter, a seminal book of stories, or poet Anne Sexton’s fairy tale-inspired Transformation. And of course there’s Windling’s Snow White, Blood Red six volume anthology series; the complete list can be found at her Endicott Studio site.

A fantastic list of additional titles can be found here. What are your favorites?

–Julie Bartel, currently reading Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire

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7 Responses
  1. Molly Wetta permalink
    February 26, 2013

    I love this list! Another of my favorite fairy tales for adults is a collection of short stories by Angela Carter called The Bloody Chamber. Definitely on the dark end of the spectrum, but the stories have a sort of feminist point of view.

    • Julie B permalink
      March 6, 2013

      I love Angela Carter too, especially The Bloody Chamber! Another good feminist-flavored book of short stories is Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. I think it’s sadly OP but it’s worth seeking out–some great, unique re-tellings that have stuck with me for years…

  2. Wendy Daughdrill permalink
    February 27, 2013

    Yes, great list! I will definitely be tracking down some these for the summer. My absolute all-time favorite adult fairy tale retelling would have to be The Firebird by Mercedes Lackey.

  3. February 28, 2013

    Enchantment by Orson Scott Card — awesome book!

  4. March 4, 2013

    Angela Carter is the best of the best of the best! Bill Willingham’s FABLES comics series is magnificent, and I am looking forward to reading Catherynne M. Valente’s latest, SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE.

    I read Grimm’s fairy tales over and over and over as a kid, and so did so many of my favorite writers — they are to storytelling what salt is to cooking. Great post!

    • Julie B permalink
      March 6, 2013

      I love Fables (and all the spinoffs, to varying degrees) so so much! I also love Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting series and The Book of Ballads (illustrated by Charles Vess, stories by Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull etc. etc.) which is songs as well as folktales, all gorgeously illustrated. Looks like it too is OP (argh!) but libraries might have copies…

  5. March 6, 2013

    I really like Melissa Lemon’s 2 books Cinder and Ella & Snow Whyte and the Queen of Mayhem.

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