YA fairy tale retellings are a popular genre, but which ones should you read, and which should you skip? These 5 fresh takes on timeless fairy tales are perfect for young adults and tweens (or adults)! They’ll continue to enchant long after you’ve turned the last page.
Guest post by Emma Fox
Sixty years ago, C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote an essay for The New York Times Book Review entitled “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said.”
I thoroughly agree.
What do fairy tales teach us?
Fairy tales express our deepest human longings, teach underlying truths about the world around us, and inspire us with examples of compassion, courage, and perseverance. The best fairy tales are so much more than entertaining stories for children. That’s why I believe you shouldn’t just watch fairy tales in movies–you should read them!
Plus, they’re just fun! For young adults (and older ones, too), novelized versions of classic fairy tales seek to plumb the depths of emotion and meaning that these stories contain. Here are 5 of my favorites.
5 Unforgettable Fairy Tale Retellings for Young Adults
1. Beauty by Robin McKinley (1978)
It’s impossible for me to compile a list of great fairy tale retellings without including this classic retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” I first read Beauty in junior high, and I’ve re-read it many times since. The pacing and arc of the novel are perfectly timed, the emotional development flawlessly orchestrated. It never fails to delight.
The story is told from Beauty’s perspective, in 1st person past tense. It’s as if she’s remembering her experiences and relating them to us, the readers. As a result, we get the double pleasure of experiencing the gradual transformation of Beauty’s own character, as well as that of the Beast.
The emotions of the story ring fresh and true, and the descriptions of the Beast and his enchanted castle are elegant and evocative. Among my favorite elements: the opinionated invisible servants, Beauty’s close friendship with her sisters, and of course, the Beast himself—kind, solemn, and tormented.
Related: If you’re a Beauty and the Beast fan, check out this post on symbolism in the Disney Beauty and the Beast live-action film.
2. Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George (2008)
Sun and Moon is based on an old Norse folk tale, commonly known in English retellings as “East O’ the Sun, West O’ the Moon.” It’s the story of an impoverished lass who, in order to save her family from starvation, agrees to accompany a mysterious white bear to his palace of ice, and live with him there for one year.
The girl soon discovers that the palace holds many secrets, not least of which is the nightly arrival of a man whose face is concealed from her by the darkness. Her attempt to discover his identity backfires spectacularly, launching her on a quest to find the land “east of the sun and west of the moon,” and rescue the man she has come to love before he’s lost to her forever.
Sun and Moon is full of delightful details drawn from Nordic culture—food, dress, language, customs—as well as elements of Norse myth such as the man-bear bjørn, the Three Ancient Ones, and a variety of ugly trolls. As a twist on the original tale, Day George populates the Bear’s palace with a variety of other mythological characters: a faun, selkie, salamanders, minotaur, and gargoyle, each with their own distinct personalities.
The most compelling aspect of this novel, however, is the string of mysteries which the heroine must solve. How can a bear come to speak like a man? Who is the strange guest who spends each night in her chamber? Why are the mythological creatures in the palace condemned to servitude, far from their native lands? What message do the runes on the palace pillars convey?
3. The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (2003)
The Goose Girl was Newberry Award-winner Shannon Hale’s debut novel, and the first in her four-part Books of Bayern series. It’s based on a Grimm Brothers’ tale by the same name.
While journeying to the kingdom of her betrothed—a prince she has never met—teenage princess Anidori is betrayed by her handmaid, Selia. The two girls bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. Selia develops a clever plan: get rid of the real princess, marry the unwitting prince, then convince him to wage war against Anidori’s “treacherous” subjects so that she can be the queen of two realms.
The maid’s evil henchmen kill the faithful servants in Ani’s retinue; Ani manages to survive, but has nothing besides her own word to prove her true identity. She makes her way to the prince’s kingdom of Bayern, and takes an “undercover” job tending the palace geese. During her lonely days in the meadows, Ani discovers that she has an unusual gift: the ability to understand the speech of animals, and even that of the wind. She also forges strong friendships with the castle servants, including a kind young man named Geric, who often spends time in the meadows outside the palace.
Ani is sorely tempted to forget her royal responsibilities and embrace this new, quiet life where so little is expected of her. But when she learns of Selia’s plot against her family, Ani must sacrifice these dreams, and call on her new friends and unusual skills in order to save her kingdom.
Ani is a different sort of heroine: quietly courageous, in sharp contrast to her brash and manipulative handmaid. I love the way that she gradually finds her inner strength over the course of the story, until she is ultimately willing to lay down her hopes and face all her fears in order to save her kingdom. I found Geric thoroughly charming, and Ani’s friend Enna is the sort of fiercely-loyal best friend that every girl would like to have on her side.
4. Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (2007)
Book of a Thousand Days also finds its roots in a Grimms’ fairy tale: the story of “Maid Maleen.” However, Hale gives the story a new setting—medieval Mongolia—and a different voice: it’s written as a series of journal entries, from the perspective of the servant girl Dashti.
Dashti is a “mucker,” from the lowest social caste, and she faces a dire predicament. Her mistress, Lady Saren, has refused to marry the powerful (but evil) Lord Khasar, so her father has locked both Saren and Dashti inside a windowless tower as punishment. Lady Saren quickly falls into despair, but Dashti is determined to find a way to help her mistress survive, and to deliver her safely to Khan Tegus, whom Lady Saren claims is her secret fiancé.
Like Anidori in The Goose Girl, Dashti is an unlikely heroine. She’s a sturdy nomad from the Mongolian steppes, without courtly beauty, wealth, or power on which to call. But she’s clever and kind, and confronts one obstacle after another with great courage and resourcefulness. Even though she’s also secretly in love with Tegus, Dashti is determined to put Lady Saren’s security and happiness before her own.
The plot of the story builds gradually, picking up speed and complexity as Dashti uncovers the secrets of Lady Saren’s past, and Lord Khasar plots to destroy Tegus and proclaim himself the Khan. The humble, ordinary feel of the opening entries escalates into a chilling, epic struggle full of magic and emotion that will soon have you racing to turn each page.
5. Hunted by Meagan Spooner (2017)
I’ll close this sampling of excellent fairy tale novels with one more “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. This one’s set in medieval Russia, with a passionate, bow-wielding heroine named Yeva. I’ve read (and watched) so many versions of Beauty and the Beast, but so far none of them has come close to capturing my heart the way that McKinley’s Beauty did (not even McKinley’s Rose Daughter)—until Hunted came along.
Hunted has a raw, wild feel to it that’s very different from the French Baroque splendor of the Disney film adaptations. It’s set in the cold, vast forests of the north, and populated with creatures from Slavic folklore. The Beast is a giant gray wolf, and he doesn’t just suffer from a bad temper: he is truly dangerous and savage. Yeva believes that he has killed her father, and hates him bitterly. Throughout much of the novel, there’s a chilling sense that each could kill the other at any moment.
The 3rd person narrative, told from Beauty’s perspective, is interspersed with 1st person snippets as told by the Beast. I loved these “windows” into his heart: you can really see and feel his gradual transformation. There’s the rage of despair, the heaviness of shame, the bright burning of hope. At its core, Hunted is an exploration of desire: the deep longings of the human soul for something more, something beyond—the music of another world.
The next time you want to get swept away into other lands and times, pick up one of these fairy tales and let yourself be enchanted. These stories will linger with you long after you turn the last page.
Note from Elsie: Emma Fox has written fairy tale retellings of her own! Read my book review for her most recent novel, The Carver and the Queen. For more of my favorite recent fairy tale novels, check out this post! And if you love YA fantasy, these 7 fantasy series for young adults and tweens will add many pleasant reading hours to your life. If you like the “original” versions of fairy tales, head to this post for 25+ classic fairy tale collections for your home library.
What are your favorite fairy tale retellings? Have you read any of the novels in this list?
Emma Fox is a YA fantasy and historical fiction author. Her novel The Arrow and the Crown has won a number of awards and has a full 5-star rating on Amazon. You can learn more about Emma on her Facebook page and website. Emma lives in Birmingham, Alabama.