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Once Upon a Time Top 10: Twisted Fairy Tales

upon a time girls were locked in towers and saved by princes.  Today, sometimes we lock boys in towers and the princess gets to save the day.

Fairy tales are tricky business.  Here we just spent the last week talking about YA lit and how it influences body image, and now we’re talking about fairy tales.  Without a doubt fairy tales can leave readers – girls especially – reeling in gender stereotypes and feeling disempowered.  The original fairy tales usually didn’t even have happy endings.  And now our happy endings are saccharine sweet and gag inducing.  I, personally, get sick of waiting for the girl to wise up, use her brain or just save herself already!!  But today’s fairy tales have a lot of cool twists and turn convention on its side.  I won’t say that twisted fairy tales are always groundbreaking in the way they present women, but at least they put enough of a spin on the classic fairy tales (and just some good ole classics) as to be new, inventive, and a fun read.  So here are 10 of my favorites.

Skinny by Donna Cooner
Okay so technically this is a Cinderella retelling, but Christie hasn’t read it and didn’t put it on her list – so I am putting it on mine.  As I discussed in my review, Skinny takes a contemporary problem (weight issues) and gives it a fairy tale subtext.  There are no fairy godmothers or pumpkin carriages, but there is deception (in this case self-deception about body image), a make-over, and a gradual awakening.  And in this case, Ever herself is the one who chooses the path that will help bring about her awakening by choosing weight loss surgery.  Some people may be offended that she chooses the surgery, but she makes the decision for herself – instigates it even – and that is a message of empowerment.

Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross
Cross creates a creative world where real, every people bear the curses of our favorite fairy tales in unique ways.  It is fun to read about the characters and put them together with their fairy tale.  I was frustrated at first with the way our main character immediately falls in love, but then later it all makes sense in very disturbing and haunting ways.  Creative, fun and great contemporary twist on a fairy tale world.  Here are main characters are all trying to find ways to see if they can subvert fate and destiny and make their own life choices.

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
This literary retelling of Peter Pan is simply AMAZING.  Read my review, read this book.  Our main character, Tiger Lily, is strong willed and torn between love and duty to her community.  Seriously, this book is good.

Fathomless by Jackson Pearce
Mermaids seem to be big this year.  I have seen no less than 5 mermaid tales in 2012.  But what about The Little Mermaid?  Jackson Pearce takes this popular tale and gives it her own personal twist.  Pearce has had success with twisted fairy tales (see below) and they are worth a read.  I recently saw Jackson Pearce at the Irving Public Library and she is very fun and would be a great author visit.

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce
Only slightly relevant story: When I was a child, I had a rag doll that was Little Red Riding Hood and then, when you flipped her dress over, she became the wolf dressed as grandma.  This may help explain my lifelong fascination with the Little Red Riding Hood story.  Or maybe I am drawn to this book because of the amazing cover design.  Whatever drew me to the story, it was the story itself that kept me reading.  Here we have two sisters, one who is falling in love with the woodsman and one who is obsessed with hunting wolves.  One feels they owe a debt to the other, but we all know that love can trump all – even sisters and debts.  I am going to be completely honest with you; this book has received some mixed reviews and there are some definite things you can question about the message it sends regarding victimhood, but it isn’t often that you see Little Red Riding Hood being presented to teens and I am a fan.

Beastly by Alex Flinn
Alex Flinn is one of the original queens of twisted fairy tales (along with Donna Jo Napoli) and you’ll definitely want to make sure and check out this re-telling of Beauty and the Beast.  This is a good title that you can use for a book and movie discussion/comparison.  If I recall correctly, the author isn’t a big fan of the movie adaptation but I don’t really mind it.

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
Briar Rose is a an older but beautiful title in which our main character learns that he grandmother’s story of sleeping beauty is really a way of telling her deepest secret: she was a part of the Nazi concentration camps.  This is such an intelligent concept and a masterful storytelling.  To this day I can still picture scenes with the woods in my mind.

Enchanted by Orson Scott Card
Okay so this one is not technically ya – you got me there.  But I love the way that Card presents woman’s intuition as being this magical force that is just accepted among the land.  This is another take on the Sleeping Beauty tale and, although it doesn’t take the place in my heart of Briar Rose, I find the idea of woman having magic to be such an interesting way to look at what we have always called “woman’s intuition”.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman
When a star falls and a promise is made, Tristan goes through the gap in a wall around his town and begins the most unforgettable journey of his life.  Gaiman is a master at fantasy and this is a great introduction to his works.  Of course you’ll definitely want to make sure and share The Graveyard Book with your teens as well.

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
This Newbery Honro Book is a great female empowerment story.  Harry is an orphaned girl who discovers magic in herself when she is kidnapped by a mysterious king.  Is it a twisted fairy tale?  I don’t know and I don’t really care – I just really like this book.  And I love it’s sequel, The Hero and the Crown.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman
When a boy stays home from school sick, his grandfather comes and reads him the story of The Princess Bride.  The young boy is sure he doesn’t want to read about princesses, but it turns out to be a pretty awesome story with adventure, pirates and yes – true love.  This fun story mocks everything we love about fairy tales and entertains along the way.  This is an excellent and fun movie to do a book and movie discussion with.  This is my bonus fairy tale (you’ll notice there are actually 11 titles on this list).

Goodreads has a list of 100 Twisted Fairy Tales.  So tell us, what’s your favorite and why.  And which ones do you think send the most empowering messages to readers?

TPIB: Once Upon a Time
Contest: Children’s Stories


  1. Don't get me wrong, the Blue Sword is one of my favorite books of all time, but I was surprised to see it on this list rather than McKinley's Beauty:

    It's been a long time since I've read it, but I do know McKinley always presents strong female characters, all of whom were definitely great role models for me growing up. I love that you're giving the Blue Sword props, but when I saw “Robin McKinley” at the top I was definitely expecting to see Beauty here!

  2. I have to be honest, I don't think I have read McKinley's Beauty. I am a definite fan of Mckinley and imagine it would be a great addition to the list – but I hang my head in shame for not having read this one.

  3. It’s true that the original fairy tales usually didn’t even have happy endings. And now our happy endings are saccharine sweet and gag-inducing. Nice list of 10 twisted fairy tale stories. Thanks for sharing!

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