Fairytales might seem to belong to childhood—the magical talking animals, the wishes and the transformations and yes, even the fairies. But if you look closely (and past the Disney interpretations) you’ll discover that fairytales are fairly dark and more than a little bit terrifying. Not only for children after all. Here is a list of ten fairytale retellings written for adults (and teens):
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivie: This retelling of the Russian fairy tale “The Snow Maiden” is also a historical novel. It is the story of Jack and Mabel, who’ve left their fairly safe but exceedingly sad life in 1920’s Pennsylvania for the Alaskan frontier. Sad because, except for one stillborn, they never were able to have children, and all of the family reminders around them (the nieces and nephews, the new babies, the excited couples marrying) were just too much. Of course, life in Alaska is hardly easy either, with the short growing season, fierce winters, and isolation. But then, one night of clean snow and happiness, Jack and Mabel build a snow girl, dress her with mittens, a hat, and a scarf. In the morning, they wake to find the knitted clothing gone and a dead rabbit next to the decimated snow girl. Then they find a girl, Faini, wandering in the forest, and their sadness starts to melt away.
My Mother, She Killed Me, My Father, He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales by Kate Bernehimer: Remember those long afternoons you’d spend as a kid, sitting in your backyard in the shade and reading fairytales? This collection of short stories will evoke that long-ago pleasure, but in a more adult way. The stories manage to combine the strange, threatening atmosphere of a fairytale with grown-up ideas and experiences like falling in love, parenting, and addiction. There’s a story about a secret vasectomy, more than a few about art, and one about a mother who is obsessed with cleaning her house. There are familiar tales and some you might have never read before, but all of them will help renew your affection for fairytales.
East by Edith Pattou: In the Norwegian “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” fairytale, a girl saves her family by leaving home with a mysterious talking polar bear. In Pattou’s retelling, Rose has been raised believing that her fate is East (obedient and pliable) but discovers that she is really North (wild and unpredictable). When she leaves her home to live with the polar bear, she finds that at night, so long as she will not look at him in the light, he discards his polar bear skin and is a man. Told in many different voices, Pattou’s novel explores ideas such as destiny, choice, and courage while it weaves a vivid image of the cold north.
Transformations by Anne Sexton: This is a retelling of 17 of the Grimm fairytales, recast as contemporary poetry. Rather than delving into her personal experiences, as she does in her other collections, Sexton here assumes the voice of the storyteller, a “middle aged witch with her mouth open wide, ready to tell a story or two.” The stories she tells are familiar—“Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Rumpelstiltskin.” But through the lens of poetry, they also grow a little strange, revealing the way that story forces tradition and the damage that can cause. A haunting, beautiful collection, Transformations will transform your connection to these tales.
Deerskin by Robin McKinley: Robin McKinley is known for retelling fairytales and legends, as well as creating new fantasies, with a flair for detailed settings and intimate connections. Beauty and Rose Daughter (retellings of “Beauty and the Beast”) and Spindle’s End (“Sleeping Beauty”) might be her best known books, but Deerskin is her most haunting. It is a retelling of the French tale called “Donkeyskin,” about a girl who escapes from her father after her mother’s death leads him to amorous thoughts and violent actions. With only her dog Ash as a companion, and so traumatized by her experiences that she forgets them, Lissar eventually finds work at another castle’s dog kennels. McKinley doesn’t shy away from the darkness in this tale, letting the terror and anguish build, but then she turns it into the hope of Lissar’s new future. In that way, it is a tale of survival.
The Magic Circle by Donna Jo Napoli: Grounded in medieval Europe and its fear of witches, The Magic Circle retells the “Hansel and Gretel” fairytale from the perspective of the hungry witch. Called the “Ugly One,” the hunchbacked old woman lives alone in a cottage in the wood to keep herself away from humans. Many years ago, she was tricked by the devil’s minions, who took away her midwifery and healing skills and turned her into a witch. The final step of her damnation will be the eating of a human child, which she has so far managed not to do. But when two children wander into her forest, her resolve is tested. This dark, edgy tale manages a sliver of redemption as it illuminates the power that free will has over evil.
Goose Girl by Shannon Hale: When her father, the king of Kildenree, dies, crown princess Anidori is shocked by her mother’s pronouncement: the young prince will become the next leader of Kildenree, and Ani will go to Bayern to marry the prince. On her journey, she is betrayed by her lady-in-waiting and narrowly escapes death. Ani, who can speak to animals but has a harder time understanding people, becomes a keeper of geese in the castle of the Bayern prince, until she can find a way to take back what is hers. Keeping true to the Grimm Brother’s “Goose Girl” (with its gruesome punishment for betrayal), the story makes a statement about being brave enough to save yourself. The first in Hale’s “Books of Bayern” series.
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen: Yolen mingles the fairytale world of “Sleeping Beauty” (aka Briar Rose) with the horrific experiences of the Holocaust. For as long as she can remember, Gemma had listened to her grandmother’s retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, but after her grandmother’s death, a box of newspaper clippings arrives that sends Gemma searching for the truth behind the tale. Her research takes her to Poland, where she discovers her grandmother’s true history.
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier: “The Six Swans” is a fairytale about six brothers who are turned into swans by their wicked stepmother. To restore them to their human form, their sister must weave a shirt for each of them out of stinging nettle before seven years have ended. Juliet Marillier sets this tale in medieval Ireland during a war with the Britons. While her father is away fighting, Sorcha works to weave the shirts for her brothers, but she must remain silent and hidden from the sorceress who cursed them. Undaunted by her silence, a young Briton falls in love with her. A sweet romance edged with spiny thorns of magical interference, Daughter of the Forest is the first of the Sevenwaters Trilogy.
Stardust by Neil Gaiman: A falling start prompts Tristan Thorn to finally leave the small, English town of Wall for the world of Faerie (which lies just beyond the wall his village takes its name from). Initially his journey has just one goal: to find the fallen star and bring it home to his beloved, but all is not as it seems in the land of Faerie, especially the star. After many adventures with such creatures as wicked witches, sprites, and goblins—not to mention the scheming machinations of the brothers of Stormhelm—much magic and some romance as well, Tristan has to choose between what he thinks he wants and what his fantastic adventures have brought him. Based not on one specific fairytale, but on playing with and stirring up fairytale conventions, Stardust is one of those rare coincidences when the book and the movie are equally awesome.