As a child, I read every fairytale and folktale collection that I could get my hands on. I loved being swept away to other times, places and worlds. I relished being called into perilous adventures, then brought safely home again, with the heroes rewarded and the villains soundly trounced.
In high school, I discovered fairytale retellings: novelized versions that took the skeletal framework of a familiar tale and fleshed it out with vivid worldbuilding and fully realized characters. Back in the late ‘90s, of course, the pickings were rather slim. There were a few forerunners from earlier generations, like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and a smattering of works from the ‘70s and ‘80s—like Robin McKinley’s Beauty. But Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose was receiving rave reviews, and Gail Carson Levine had just won the Newberry for her smash hit, Ella Enchanted. Fairytale retellings were ready for takeoff.
Two decades later, young fantasy fans have a wide array of retellings to entice them, especially in the middle grade and young adult departments. Authors are digging up little-known folktales, expanding the roles of previously minor characters, and developing new backstories for familiar heroes and heroines. They’re also exploring a vast span of time periods and cultures—even other worlds. Meagan Spooner’s Hunted, for example, blends Beauty and the Beast with Russian folklore; Marissa Meyer’s Cinder revolves around a young cyborg in a futuristic New Beijing controlled by a lunar race. And with the success of Disney’s live-action versions of favorite fairytales, it’s likely that this genre will only continue to grow.
However, I’d contend that not all retellings are created equal, especially in the messages they convey. Here are a few helpful principles for Christian parents as we seek to guide our children into wise reading choices.
Is it true to the “heart” of the original tale?
It’s perfectly fine (and wonderfully fun!) to twist a tale’s specifics by asking “what if?” What if Cinderella and the Prince were actually childhood friends? (Levine’s Ella Enchanted). What if the twelve dancing princesses longed to share the secret of their nightly disappearance, but were bound to silence by a curse? (Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball).
However, it’s important to temper ingenuity with integrity. If an author has no respect for the story they’re borrowing from, why bother to retell it? A good retelling should expand the original tale, not shatter it. It’s the difference between opening the windows to let in some fresh air, and knocking down the rafters until the ceiling caves in.
Simply Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix exemplifies this sort of collapse. It presents Cinderella, post ball and slippers, preparing for—and dreading—her imminent marriage to a vapid Prince Charming. She is utterly miserable, and wants nothing more than to return to her old home (minus her mean-spirited relations, of course). All the familiar magic is gone: every element of the tale has been quite literally “disenchanted.” Although Haddix’s story has some clever and well-crafted elements, her cynical and jaded Ella is a far cry from the Grimm brothers’ compassionate heroine. Indeed, the operative “what if?” question in this retelling seems to be, “What if everything you thought you knew about Cinderella was a lie?”
Does it distinguish between good and evil?
Fairytales can be very dark indeed—and not just in recent renditions. There are scenes in Grimms’ Fairy Tales that are enough to make your skin crawl. But in most traditional tales, good and evil are clearly presented as such, and heroes and villains receive their due. In fact, one of the prime benefits of reading fairytales is that they model virtue in the face of vice, and emphasize that truth wins out in the end.
That’s why I find it particularly disturbing when retellings present heroes so vicious and self-focused that the goal they seek justifies every means. I’m fine with flawed heroes (they present opportunities for character transformation), and complicated villains (they teach readers compassion and wisdom). But on the whole, I want my children to identify with protagonists who model qualities like loyalty, humility, and sacrificial love. Shannon Hale’s retellings (such as The Goose Girl) are a good place to start because her characters consistently model true courage: doing the right thing even when it hurts.
Are there echoes of the True Story?
I don’t think that retellings have to be “Christianized,” or even told by a Christian author, to contain elements of God’s truth. But it is important to me that their core messages align with the world as God designed it.
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recalled how the Norse myths he read as a child paved the way for his acceptance of the gospel as an adult. They gave him examples of beauty, sacrifice and courage, and awoke a longing for something outside himself: something deeper and greater that could ultimately only be satisfied by the true God.
Lewis certainly would not have advocated that parents use fantasy as a stand-in for Scripture. Still, it’s worth noting that many fairytales and folktales contain “common grace” insights. How does a simple story like “Cinderella” thrive across continents and centuries? Because it reflects key elements of the gospel story: our souls are in bondage, longing to be set free from the dominion of darkness and brought into the heart and kingdom of the Son (Col. 1:13).
Fairytales have instructed and delighted their audience for millennia, and modern retellings continue to prove their power. Let’s give our children the very best this genre has to offer: stories that respect the heart of the tale they aim to tell, affirm the power of good over evil, and echo Scriptural truth. These are the type of stories that are worth remembering for a lifetime.