It’s been refreshing over the last few years in YA to not have a “trend.” We aren’t seeing scads of books trying to make a buck off the latest hit titles. Instead, the doors have been opening wider, bit by bit, for more stories by and about people of the global majority, as well as queer people. It’s clear that these stories are not only important — a word that too often gets attached to them, as if their only value is in being “important” per white standards — but they resonate deeply with teen and young adult readers desperate to see themselves and others like them in the books they read.
If there is one thing, though, that has emerged, both as a result of more inclusivity and as a result of fewer trends, it’s that there’s been a swell of YA retellings. These range from classics which have been retold and remixed for decades, as well as stories being re-sung which haven’t. There are more non-European fairytales emerging with fresh takes, as well as more books being gender and genre bent.
2021 has been flush with excellent YA retellings, including a number still slated to hit shelves before the year ends. In an era where too many publications race to share their “best of” lists first — some coming as soon as September of this year (sure, partly because of supply chain issues) — it’s worth remembering that October, November, and December, even if they’re “quieter” publishing months, still produce some outstanding reads.
This roundup of new and recent YA retellings does not include the wave of YA Peter Pan retellings, worthy of their own moment of consideration. It’s also not an exhaustive roundup, so it’s likely one of your favorites or one that landed on The New York Times Best Sellers list isn’t included. These retellings range from fairytales to classic stories, with something for every kind of reader across a broad range of genres.
Recent and New YA Retellings
Bad Girls Never Say Die by Jennifer Mathieu
Ever thought to yourself you’d like to read something like SE Hinton’s classic The Outsiders but with girls at the center? Then this will be a treat.
In 1964 Houston, Evie and her friends are all “bad girls” with reputations. They run with boys, wear makeup, and break all of the rules they’re meant to follow. But when a girl from the “good side” of the tracks saves Evie from the unimaginable, she’s forced to rethink what it means to be a bad girl and what loyalty truly means.
Briar Girls by Rebecca Kim Wells
Lena was cursed by a witch before she was born, leading her to a secret: she can kill with the touch of her skin. But when she and her father are forced from their lives of isolation, they end up in a village near the Silence, a forest that reportedly lures people in who are never again seen.
But when Miranda stumbles out of the Silence and meets Lena, she tells her about Gather, a city within the forest with magic. Miranda is on a search for someone who can wake the sleeping princess of Gather, who she believes holds the secret to liberating Gather from their tyrant leader. Miranda offers Lena a chance to break free from her own curse, so long as she helps find someone to wake the princess.
Lena’s on it…but the more she discovers about Gather and Miranda, the more she sees she’s been lied to about her own past. Dive into a fantastical bisexual retelling of “The Sleeping Beauty”!
A Clash of Steel by CB Lee
Part of the “Remixed Classics” series, Lee’s contribution to these reimagined classics is a fresh exploration of Treasure Island. The story, set in 1826 on the South China See, follows Xiang and Anh, two girls determined to unlock a legendary treasure on the water. Bonus: this is a queer retelling packed with adventure — something that YA doesn’t quite have enough of today.
Daughter of Sparta by Claire M. Andrews
This is a gender-twisted remake of Daphne and Apollo, Andrews’s debut — first in a duology. Daphne, who has been training her mind and body to that of a warrior, has her life completely changed when she’s forced to find the nine items stolen from Mount Olympus. If she’s unsuccessful, not only will the power of the gods dissipate, but so will that of mortals…and more importantly to Daphne, her brother’s life may come to an end.
Daughters of a Dead Empire by Carolyn Tara O’Neil
Set in the war-ravaged countryside of Russia, this is a fresh take on Anastasia. Anna is running for her life, having barely escaped the murders that rocked the rest of her family. A Red commander is after her, though, and Anna believes if she can just find the Tsarist army, she can get to safety — but it comes with convincing a peasant to take her across communist territory.
That peasant is Evgenia, who is not happy about her lot in life. Her brother, a Red soldier, is in desperate need of a doctor, and she sells a wagon ride across the communist countryside to Anna to raise the funds.
The girls, from opposing sides, learn on this trip how much they have in common, as well as what it means to survive.
The Initial Insult by Mindy McGinnis
It’s been so refreshing to see more twists on Edgar Allan Poe over the last few years in YA, including in the anthology His Hideous Heart. McGinnis, in her duology, starts with a fresh take on Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.”
Tress lost her entire family in a terrible accident seven years prior. Her family has been well-respected, but following the accident, she’s been living with her grandfather at a place locals call the “White Trash Zoo” (it is a loose, loose interpretation of a zoo).
Felicity, on the other hand, is at the top of the social ladder and has buried the truth of what happened the night Tress’s parents died. She was the other person in the car with them.
Tress wants the truth, though, and she has a plan: A Halloween party, where she can invite Felicity, prying the truth from her as she slowly encloses her in a coal chute.
…And there is a panther on the loose.
Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough
A land of beasts surrounded by forest descends into chaos when King Tyran divides the land in half on his death bed. His son will receive half, as will his daughter. But his son isn’t happy about this, and in defiance of his father’s wishes, invades his sister’s land. After he destroys his sister’s land, he claims the throne — but it won’t be long before his sister collects survivors and works to dethrone him herself.
This is a take on the Brothers Grimm stories.
Little Thieves by Margaret Owens
If you’re looking for a wicked and irreverent twist on “The Goose Girl,” Owens’s duology — which began this year — will be a treat. The book follows Vanja, who steals the life of Princess Gisele, whom she’d been a servant to for years. Now living a life as a false princess and jewel thief, Vanja works to charm nobility in order to line her own pockets with the hope of escaping into freedom. But when she crosses the wrong person, she is cursed and now only has two weeks to figure out how she can survive.
The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore
Trauma and healing are at the core of this magical realism retelling of “The Snow Queen.” Graciela was assaulted at a party the same night as another person was. What happened to Ciela impacts her own magic: she’s unable to produce the enchanted pan dulce she’s known for, and trees in her neighborhood begin to disappear. What emerges is mirrored glass, and with it, more magic, though not necessarily the good kind.
Lock, who shows up to Ciela’s school, has no recollection of the party, of Ciela, or what happened. He doesn’t know a shard of mirrored glass is causing him pain, and Ciela, who must hide what she knows, offers to help him reestablish his life — she knows who assaulted the both of them that night.
This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron
I’m really appreciating that more books are going the route of duologies, and Bayron’s take on The Secret Garden is no exception.
Bri has a gift, where she can grow plants from nothing into something with a single touch. When her aunt dies and leaves her estate in the hands of Bri and her family, they decide to spend the summer there. She’s hoping to learn to contain her gift, but soon learns through the estate’s old apothecary and walled garden packed with deadly botanicals that her family’s magic is what can help solve the dark secrets of the land. Oh, and there’s a nefarious group coming after Bri, as they discover she has a pretty magical hand for creating elixirs, including one for immortality…
Roman and Jewel by Dana L. Davis
This book definitely got lost this year, and it shouldn’t: this is a hip hop take on Romeo and Juliet featuring high school actors, social media stars, and, of course, star-crossed lovers.
Jerzie is dying to get the lead on Broadway’s Roman and Jewel, a diverse, hip hop take on Shakespeare’s classic. But instead, Cinny, a mega star, lands the role. Jerzie finds herself falling for Zeppelin Reid, playing the role of Roman. It’s a bad idea, especially as Cinny is crushing hard, and when a video of Jerzie and Zeppelin goes viral, not only is their romance potentially going to ruins, but so, too, may go the role of Jewel for Cinny.
She’s Too Pretty to Burn by Wendy Heard
Count me all the way in for this gender bent take on The Picture of Dorian Gray. The teen art scene during the summer in San Diego is happening — or, in Veronica’s case, not happening, as she feels uninspired by her photography. Best friend Nico, on the other hand, is enjoying absolute chaotic performance art this summer. This is all before Mick enters the picture, who begins to capture Veronica’s attention. Mick is magnetic and Veronica’s dream girl. But now is a fire, a pair of murders, and three dead bodies, as well as a suspect and a stalker. Will the three teens survive the summer…or one another?
Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen
Simi serves the gods she once prayed to, and her work as a Mami Wata (mermaid) includes collecting the souls of those who die at sea and blessing their journeys back home. But when a boy who is still alive is thrown overboard, she saves his life, going against ancient decrees which lead to swift punishment.
She knows she needs to make amends in order to protect the other Mami Wata, but the boy she saved knows far more than he lets on, and now, her life is on the line not just because of her actions but because of the shadow following her.
This is a West African twist on “The Little Mermaid,” and LOOK at that cover!
Small Favors by Erin A. Craig
Amity Falls is a remote mountain town, where few come to visit, but it’s where Ellerie calls home. When a supply party goes missing, the town begins to wonder if the monsters which once plagued the town are back — and strange occurrences keep happening. The creatures responsible offer the townspeople a promise to fulfill their desires in exchange for a small favor. And while they agree, the townsfolk are not prepared for the sinister intentions of the creatures.
With horror vibes akin to The Village, Craig’s story is a retelling of the folk classic “Rumpelstiltskin.”
Spin Me Right Round by David Valdez
Did anyone say a queer spin on Back to the Future? Because I didn’t know how much I needed that until I knew immediately that I did.
This funny read follows Luis Gonzalez who wants nothing more than to take his boyfriend to prom. He’s at a “progressive” school, but that’s just what they call themselves. Back when his parents went to the school, something happened to a queer student at prom that led to LGBTQ+ students feeling unsafe to be themselves at the celebration.
So when Luis is knocked on the head and travels back to 1985, he’s on a mission to help the queer boy Chaz who had his prom night turned to hell…and also discovers the truth behind his estranged father and the homophobic history of his school.
A Taste for Love by Jennifer Yen
Liza, to her best friends, is almost perfect. She’s kind and pretty, never backs down from a challenge, and she has monster-sized dreams. To her mom, though, Liza is rebellious and unwilling to follow in her mother’s traditional values, especially when it comes to dating. That Liza’s older sister does only makes it tougher. But, Liza and her mom both love baking, and when Liza agrees to help her mom at her popular bakery with the annual junior competition, she shows up and discovers it’s not a baking contest. It’s a set up: her mom has invited a slate of eligible Asian American boys for her daughter to to date. Now, Liza has to battle both for her mother’s approval AND the real feelings she’s developing for one of the contestants…AND her own goals and dreams.
This is a perfect read for fans of Pride and Prejudice retellings, as well as The Bachelor.
Tell Me My Name by Amy Reed
This is a gender bent take on The Great Gatsby, following Fern, who lives on the wealthy Commodore Island. Fern is waiting, in a sort of holding pattern, for summer, for college, for her best friend to finally declare his love for her. Then Ivy moves to town. Ivy is wealthy, famous, a shining star Fern cannot get close enough to. And as she gets closer to Ivy, the more she sees the cracks in Ivy’s life, and the more Fern herself sees everything in her own life start to look different. This book is set in the near future and is dreamy, taking readers along with Fern, unable to completely touch down until it’s far too late. It’s unique, and the comps to Speak meets We Were Liars is pretty good. It’s twisty, fiery, and fierce.
The Tragedy of Dane Riley by Kat Spears
Looking for a Hamlet retelling? Look no further.
Spears’s latest book is a close look at grief and mental illness, following Dane, whose mother has moved on after his father’s death. Dane’s not over it, though, especially because his mother’s new boyfriend and boyfriend’s son bully him; his father had been the only person to truly accept Dane for who he is. Dane’s also falling for a girl but isn’t sure if he’s brave enough to go for a relationship.
This character-driven novel will especially speak to those who feel the whole world has moved on while they’re still trying to process tragedy (which may hit close to home for many of us…).
Where The Rhythm Takes You by Sarah Dass
Seventeen-year-old Reyna has always lived in a seaside resort in Tobago, which her family owns, but after her mother died two years ago and her best friend/first love moved away, it feels like all of the comforts and things she’s loved about her life are falling away — her dad even seems like he’s ready to leave the island and their home behind. So when Aiden, Reyna’s first love, comes back into town as a guest at the family’s resort — now one of the three members of a super popular music group, DJ Bacchanal — she has the chance to reconnect with him…though he may no longer be the person she thought he was, and he might be dating one of the socialites with him on the trip. A quieter romance, but one packed with music, with Caribbean culture, and what it means to have a second chance at love. It’s a modern, contemporary retelling of Persuasion.
Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood
If Reese and Britney Spears are loving it, chances are it’s a book to pay attention to. This Ethiopian-inspired debut novel is a fantasy reimagining of Jane Eyre, following Andromeda, a debtera. Debteras are exorcists who cleanse the homes of Evil Eyes, and Andromeda has been hired by Magnus Rochester for a job. But…it’s not like any job she’s done before and chances are she herself may not survive what is happening in his household. And yet, Andromeda also knows she can’t leave Magnus to deal with his curse on his own, either.