Fairytales were originally passed down in oral form in European cultures long before written language. Years down the line, they were frequently shared with child audiences to provide moral lessons and to simply scare children into good behavior, really. Even though they’ve been diluted for younger audiences, the harsh situations and anti-feminist themes remain. (Think abusive family members, forced isolation, gaslighting, etc.) The misogyny that we find in fairy tales is ironic because the earliest tales were actually feminist critiques of patriarchy. Yes. Baroness Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy wrote the very first fairytale in 1690 about a resourceful and independent fairy queen. And yet, we don’t know her name. We are more familiar with the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christen Andersen.
Enter retellings. The act of taking established thought, analyzing it and developing new ideas is incredibly feminist. The following books do this.
Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Barron
CW: Animal death, Blood, Body horror, Bullying, Death, Emotional abuse, Homophobia, Misogyny, Murder, Sexism. Set 200 years after Cinderella married her prince, Cinderella is Dead takes place in a world where teen girls now have to flaunt themselves at the annual ball. The “goal” is for the men of the kingdom to pick their “wives” based on their beauty. Our heroine Sophia runs away in defiance, only to meet up with an new ally who will help her discover old secrets as they work together to overthrow the broken patriarchy in which they live. WOW. Young women kicking ass and taking names? I do.
Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas
CW: Child death, Grief, Kidnapping. Lost in the Never Woods is a Peter Pan retelling set five years after Wendy and her two brothers went missing in the woods. Wendy deals with guilt and anxiety about being the only one found; her brothers disappeared and she has no recollection of what happened to them. She runs into Peter, someone she believed only existed in her stories, and becomes drawn into facing what awaits her in the woods. This is the first Peter Pan remake I’ve heard of in recent years (perhaps ever?) and if the storytelling is anything like Aiden’s debut Cemetery Boys, this is bound to be an enjoyable read. Note: though Peter Pan is not officially a fairytale, it is a classic with themes similar to those found in the fairytale genre and literally includes fairies. Also, this book is too inventive to not include here.
How to Be Eaten by Maria Adelman
CW: Rape, Toxic relationship, Murder. Just released this week (!), this lit fic turns the classic and beloved fairy tale genre we grew up with on its head. In present day New York, five women meet in a support group to process their traumas together. One woman who was once devoured by a wolf wears him now as a coat. Another woman is unsure of her memory surrounding being held captive in a house made of candy. The dynamic between all of them is wary and reproving at first, but that may change over the course of the story. How to Be Eaten is recommended for readers of Carmen Maria Machado and Kristen Arnett. I recently got my hands on an advanced copy, and might just be compelled to share a review soon.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Edit: It has recently been brought to our attention that many in the book community have pointed out how harmful the Asian representation in Cinder is. For this post, I defined ‘retelling fairytales’ as a feminist act in itself; I included this book based on what the summary promised, without knowing about the criticism. I recognize this may have caused harm to our readers and I am sorry. Thank you to our Feminist Book Club community for pointing out how we can do better.
CW: Terminal illness, Death, Child death, Emotional abuse, Death of parent, Ableism. First released in 2012, Cinder is the first in the Lunar Chronicles, a young adult sci-fi dystopian series. As you can probably guess by the title, this is another Cinderella retelling. The setting is New Beijing, a place populated by humans and androids and currently ravaged by a plague. Treated like a second-class citizen, Cinder is a talented mechanic and cyborg at odds with her wicked stepmother and stepsister. She must team up with a prince to protect their world amid an intergalactic struggle. I’ve never tried this series, but it is highly rated by other readers and sounds so interesting. If you enjoy retellings AND sci-fi, this might be worth trying out.
Not Good for Maidens by Tori Bovalino
CW: Gore, Death, Violence, Body horror, Torture. This book is due to be released June 14th, but I could not resist sharing it. Not Good for Maidens is a young adult horror fantasy with LGBTQ+ rep based on Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti, a narrative poem that is not “officially” a classic fairytale, but is considered part of the genre. (This makes me think of the extreme exclusionary nature of publishing at the time she wrote. Do I smell gatekeeping here? Maybe. A post for another time.) Lou is in search of her kidnapped teenage aunt Neela, who disappeared in the goblin market. The market is a magical place with every temptation designed to lure humans. The clock is ticking for Lou to use her wits to make her way through a dangerous world to redeem her aunt before the market swallows her up forever. I love a good intrigue!
If you found this topic interesting, you should revisit Rasmila’s post on fairytales & retellings.
No list of Feminist fairytales is complete without The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter.