The Best Fairytale Retellings for Adults - 2024

May 10, 2024

What makes a novel a fairy tale retelling? Some faithfully recast characters that we know well in modern-day settings, like the characters in Helen Oyeyemi's Gingerbread, who live in present-day England and use toxic gingerbread to travel to a distant, mystical land. Other retellings are set in the past and use the fairy tale as a skin through which to tell a poignant story, like Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child or Gregory Maguire's After Alice. Retellings range from the fantastical a world in which magic is completely normalized, to the seemingly ordinary, with only a hint of the otherworldly at play. Whether fairy tales are the scaffolding for a modern-day movie or book, or the premise for a contemporary narrative set in the past, we love to keep fairy tales going, and they're still going strong. The books on this list will delight your inner child but appeal to your mature eye, offering meatier, darker, and more sophisticated fairy tales for today's reader.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

A world unto its self, this novel is utterly enchanting. 1920's frontier meets magic in the Alaskan wilderness as a childless couple grieves and struggles to survive. Along comes a child made of snow, who changes everything. This book reinvents a classic fairy tale of The Snow Maiden, giving it modern-day relevance: the sacrifices and heartbreaks of motherhood, the importance of community. Though it's based on a fairy tale, Eowyn Ivey's novel leads us somewhere new, into deep and beautiful territories of emotional discovery.

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

In Maguire's Wonderland, it's not just Alice who gets lost in a topsy-turvy world. On this trip to Wonderland, we follow Alice's friend Ada down the rabbit hole, meeting some of the familiar characters and eccentric happenings we'd hope to see in a Wonderland reboot, but refreshed by a modern-day narrator. Ada's journey is interspersed with two other storylines taking place aboveground, in real-world 1860's England. The book has poignant themes and musings about faith, time, and human nature, weaving real-life concerns with fantastical whimsy.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Reading Oyeyemi is like falling through a looking glass, forgetting what the word "book" means and how it's meant to be structured. If you want a reading experience that doesn't just riff on fairy tales, but emulates their very confounding, magical nature, Oyeyemi's Gingerbread is the place to start. Lightly based on Hansel and Gretel, as well as Vasilisa the Fair, this book is whimsically clever, comically dark, and wonderfully modern, baking in themes of immigration, family, betrayal, and belonging.

After the Forest by Kell Woods

Ever wonder what happened to Gretel after she pushed the witch into the oven? Unlike Oyeyemi's Gingerbread, Kell Woods' novel more directly riffs on Hansel and Gretel, picking up where it left off with grown-up Gretel, the woods she hoped to leave behind, and the village she calls home. It's a coming-of-age story, or maybe better described as a "coming-of-witch" tale, about embracing one's inherent gifts despite persecution and fear of the unknown. A fairy tale unto itself, After the Woods reminds us that not all witches are bad and not all gentlewomen are good. Unusual beasts and sorcery await, with a good dose of romance on the side.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Here's another fantastic "coming-of-witch" tale. Russia is at a turning point, heading towards Christianity and away from paganism and regional folklore. In a small village on the edge of the wilderness, a fairytale is told around a fire, setting the stage for Vasya's quest to save her community. The book weaves fact with fantasy, making for a complexly layered read that feels like historical fiction. For those who love strong heroines and the concept of destiny, journey into the icy woods with Vasya.

All The Ever Afters by Danielle Teller

This rewrite turns the Cinderella tale on its head, giving us sympathy for the so-called villain, Cinderella's stepmother. She didn't have it easy growing up, unlike the charmed, slightly spoiled girl who finds herself a princess one day. All the Ever Afters gives us a glimpse into the stresses and horrors of day-to-day life as a poor, single mom in pre-modern times. Come for the Cinderella references, stay for the page-turning story.

Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise

Even in childhood, Wendy had to "play mom" to her little brothers, and to Peter Pan and his lost boys. Now Wendy is grown-up and truly a mother, and has to rescue her daughter Jane from Neverland. This is Peter Pan from a mother's perspective, a dark, imaginative rewrite whose "villains" are bigger than Captain Hook, having more to do with trauma and mental health. It's more of a nightmare than a dream come true. This tale of Neverland is a grown-up feminist retelling that will whisk you away--but to where? You'll have to find out for yourself.

About the Author: Sasha Bailyn lives in New York state surrounded by trees and her son’s pillows forts. She writes memoir and magical realism. For regular content on the life of a bibliophile / writer / mother / magician, follow her on Substack.

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