Fairy tales are the common denominator in modern American society. I see it in the urban elementary classroom where I work– some students come to first grade with a high exposure to literacy, while some have held only a few books before school starts. But all of my students know the basic plot of several fairy tales. Cartoons reenact them. Movies reimagine them. Without even dipping into the plethora of print retellings, a child can learn the comforting, time-treasured stories well and quickly. There is an access point for everyone. There are not many positive entities that can claim this equality.
And yet, they can be troubling. Many fairy tales are based on the concept of achieving married status, royal status, or both. Many fairy tales end in women marrying men who treated them horribly until they didn’t. Many female characters in fairy tales have nothing to commend them but their delicate looks or willingness to keep at it until the man stops being a jerk. There is a vast and interesting world of information about the history of fairy tales in their many different versions attributed to many different people. For our purposes, know that the average child is familiar with the basic versions outlined by Disney movies, which often convey less-than-stellar messages, especially for the young girls they are marketed towards.
Grim, but all is not lost. I’ve compiled some children’s books that either retell the classic stories with strong characters and modern morals, or convey the same sense of comfort and wonder that a good fairy tale provides, minus the thieving and evil stepparents. I am a picky picture book reader- I require a good rhythm for read-alouds, illustrations that inspire, quirkiness that I can enjoy as an adult. I can assure you these picks fit the bill.
Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood, Illustrated by Meg Hunt
Pink-haired, rocket-loving Cinderella with a robot mouse sidekick? Yes, please. This version, written in verse with lots of Jetsons-esque wordplay, tells the familiar tale of a missed ball, a fairy god(robot), and a prince’s proposal. The first time I read the line “I’m far too young for marriage, but I’ll be your chief mechanic!” I actually cried with fierce joy. The spunky, lush illustrations (my boys at home stare at the end pages for minutes on end) are the perfect compliment to this story about a capable heroine with a useful hobby.
Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz, Illustrated by Dan Santat
The Big Bad Wolf takes karate lessons to toughen up, then tries to do the exact thing that every parent fears will happen if they give their kid karate lessons: he tries to test out his new skills on an unsuspecting person. He gets his unsuspecting butt kicked. Ninja Red takes the fairy tale and twists it inside out, showing up as an empowered young girl who loves her grandmother AND can protect herself.
The Big Pets by Lane Smith
There is no deep life lesson here, just gorgeous, dreamy prose with soft, almost Tim Burton-esque illustrations that are jarring and gentle at exactly the same time. Smith lays out a world where oversized pets and their people spend their evenings in The Milk Pool, The Bone Garden, and other fantastical settings. My favorite is the solitary boy and his pet cricket.
Thunder Rose Written by Jerdine Nolen, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
“She’s going to grow up to be good and strong, all right,” Doc Hollerday said. The child turned to the good doctor with a thoughtful glance and replied, “I reckon I will want to do more than that. Thank you very kindly!”
This heart-swelling story about a young girl born with amazing abilities (calling up thunder and lightning, crafting things from metal, and wrangling cattle, to name a few) is full of bite-sized pieces of wisdom about powerful women. Nolen shares in her author’s note that she wanted to contribute to the long tradition of African American folklore by writing a tall tale set in the Old West, and Thunder Rose is a character who will inspire and endure. Kadir Nelson’s gorgeous illustrations convey a sense of power and wonder- his rendering of Thunder Rose at her birth with a circlet of lightning raised over her head is awe-inspiring.
Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems
Willems brings his quirky narrator’s voice to this retelling, featuring a girl “who never listens to anyone or anything” wandering into… a trap? Never! There is wry humor inserted into each step of the classic fairy tale, ending when the girl’s intuition is triggered and she quickly escapes. The moral “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave,” should, as one friend remarked, hang in high schools across the nation.
Journey by Aaron Becker
A wordless picture book is a tough sell to the read-aloud crowd, but this intricate story will fuel hours of pouring over details and creating what if scenarios for the characters in each setting. A bored young girl draws a door and discovers she is in a world she can manipulate with her trusty writing implement- think Harold and the Purple Crayon all grown up. The illustrations are lush and miniature, allowing you to find something new every time. The contrast between the city setting at the beginning and the elaborate medieval world the girl adventures in creates a sense of excitement and fairy tale wonder.
Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas by Natasha Yim, Illustrated by Grace Zong
One of the biggest issues I’ve always had with the classic Goldilocks fairy tale is the thieving element- this girl breaks, enters, destroys property, and then high tails it home. I am particularly partial to retellings where Goldilocks helps clean up the mess she makes, and this delightful tale provides that and more. Goldy Luck gets into her hijinks in the home of a neighboring family of panda bears, but ends up taking responsibility for her actions. The result is a plate of turnip cakes and a new friend to help celebrate Chinese New Year.
I’m itching to add to my read-aloud round up, so tell me, what are some of your favorite modern retellings of classic fairy tales?