In the last week I got a few new books or holds in from the library, all of them YA, most of them new takes on classic tales like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Red Riding Hood. It seems like not a month goes by without new YA titles being released that are some new “take” on a classic fairytale or canonical work. Witness EpicReads’ Epic Chart of 162 Young Adult Retellings. Yes, 162 retellings of classical myths, fairy tales, Shakespeare, and canonical stories we all remember from childhood. And this epic chart was published in February 2014, over a year ago, while these novels keep hitting the bookshelves just about every week.
I mean, it’s great, right?
Actually, I’m not sure it is.
Because most if not all of the stories that serve as points-of-departure were written so very long ago. Shakespeare? That’s reaching back over 400 years. Brothers Grimm? Approaching 200 years. Classical mythology? I don’t know…you tell me, perhaps a few thousand years?
What happens when we wake up and realize we need to be encouraging the creation of our own fairy tales and not just spin-offs of a canonical work?
What is our new canon?
With that question in mind, I reconsidered some authors who are writing modern fairy tales. These writers have a dreamlike quality to their work, a sense of fantasy that sneaks up on you. These authors are our contemporary Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, or Hans Christian Andersen. Perhaps the best word to describe their work is enchanted. If you love fairy tale retellings but can’t take reading yet-another Cinderella story, consider checking out some of the authors below.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
― Neil Gaiman,
Neil Gaiman is an international literary superstar, cult figure, and hero to the library community for his activism and advocacy for increasing literacy, protecting libraries, and supporting independent bookstores. He’s also a really, really good writer. When I think of contemporary fairy tales, he is the first person who comes to mind. From his children’s novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book to his books for older readers like Stardust and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman’s range is wide and his talent unmistakeable.
If you want to read up more on this awesome author, check out Buzzfeed’s article “14 Things You Didn’t Know about Neil Gaiman.” Gaiman once alphabetized all of his books when he was a kid—obviously a future advocate for libraries!—and has a talking cat.
“Once, there was a girl who vowed she would save everyone in the world, but forgot herself.”
― Holly Black,
Okay, Holly Black makes this an easy pick. Even if she didn’t call one of her ongoing series “Modern Faerie Tales” Black’s novels would make it easy for you to come up with that description on your own.
Black focuses her young adult novels on mystical creatures, faeries, alternate universes (or are they?) where magic is commonplace, and stories that read like legends immortal. Her most recent is The Darkest Part of the Forest and another recent favorite is The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. She is also the author of the Spiderwick Chronicles for children.
“She said to the Daisy girl with her big brown eyes: ‘I will not have it plain. No. Fancy. It must be fancy!’ She meant her future. A moon-daisy dropped to the floor, down from her hair, like a faintly derisive sign from heaven.”
― Angela Carter,
Angela Carter not only writes new spins on classic fairy tales, such as The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, but also crafts new stories bursting with magical realism, winks of the fantastical, and a dream-like atmosphere permeating the everyday, leaving you breathless and dizzy, ultimately disappointed that your own reality doesn’t match Carter’s universe.
Some of her most popular novels are Nights at the Circus—in which a half-swan, half-woman leaves men swooning under her spell as she enchants the aristocracy and performs in a circus—and The Magic Toyshop, a Gothic family saga underscored by the magic of the make-believe world of toys, fantasy, and love.
This choice quote is actually in the form of one page from Carroll’s creepy fantastic graphic novel,Through the Woods.
Emily Carroll‘s graphic novel Through the Woods totally took my breath away when I read it last year. I felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole and between the covers of the oversized fairy tale books I used to make my dad read to me every night when I was a kid. Only these stories were much more dark, infused with horror and the macabre–in other words, just what I love. Though I’m still not sure I would put these gory, forest-themed, ghost-fairy tales in the YA section of the library, I think they would have definitely appealed to the Hot Topic, Tim Burton-obsessed kids I went to high school with, kids I’m sure exist in every high school.
Not to mention the artwork is just gorgeous, seemingly improvised and whimsical while also clearly being calculated to achieve a targeted effect. After you finish this graphic novel you’ll probably be looking to read more by Carroll. Luckily she has just illustrated Baba Yaga’s Assistant, a decidedly young adult spin on the classic tale of Baba Yaga, old hag witch of the forest. You can also read more of Carroll’s web comics on her website.
“Magic was singing in me, through me; I felt the murmur of his power singing back that same song.”
― Naomi Novik,
Naomi Novik is best known for her Temeraire series, but her 2015 young adult fantasy novel Uprooted might make her a household name. Critically acclaimed, Uprooted is a fairy tale if there ever was one.
Agnieszka, our heroine, is whisked away as a chosen girl to a horrible man and benefactor her village knows only as The Dragon. Agnieszka fully expects to die or be changed once she gets there as all the young women have before. If you liked Through the Woods by Emily Carroll discussed above or just enjoy fairy tales with elements of huge mysterious forests much less a quasi beauty and the beast vibe, Uprooted is the story for you.
So hopefully you’ve found some contemporary writers here who bring a touch of magic, a hint of the bewitched, and a dash of the fantastical to fairy tales. There’s something to be said for clever retellings of classic tales from our childhood, but there’s also joy eternal from tearing up the canon and breathing fresh life into fairy tales.