This week we’re talking about folktales and fairytales. I wrote an article on the subject a year or so ago and heard that folktales and fairytales aren’t selling well as picture books. But fairytales have found a new home in novels for middle grade and young adult readers. You might say that fairytales have grown up.
Reka Simonsen, now executive editor for Harcourt, said in an interview, “Fairytales and folktales for younger kids are hard to publish successfully these days. That doesn’t seem to be true of novels for young adult readers, though. There are enough books, authors, and long-term fans to have turned the novel-length fairytale into a subgenre of its own, a particular type of fantasy that’s especially popular with adolescent girls.” Most popular are versions that give the classic tales a new twist–“a different setting or a stronger female lead character, for example.”
Heather Tomlinson, author of The Swan Maiden (Henry Holt, 2007) twisted a traditional story in Toads and Diamonds (Henry Holt, 2010). “In Charles Perrault’s original tale, a fairy rewards one girl with the gift of speaking jewels and flowers, while condemning her older sister to spew toads and snakes when she talks. I wondered what would happen if the two gifts were equally valuable–and equally dangerous.”
Tomlinson points to “many successful novels and series drawing on fairytale roots. But I think writers can increase their chances of success by retelling a lesser-known story, or finding a really fresh angle on a familiar one.”
Simonsen said, “Some people in publishing and bookselling are getting pretty tired of fantasy of all kinds, including fairytale novelizations. I think that response is mostly from the people who never liked these kinds of books anyway. Fantasy has been the bestselling genre for the past decade and it’s still going strong, so clearly kids are not sick of it. It’s a crowded market, so it can be hard to stand out, but there is definitely a big fan base for fairytale novelizations.”
Other fairytale-inspired books of recent years include:
Sisters Red, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood by Jackson Pearce (Little, Brown, 2010)
Devoured, a retelling of Snow White by Amanda Marrone (Simon Pulse, 2009)
A Curse Dark As Gold, a historical retelling of Rumpelstiltskin by Elizabeth Bunce (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2008)
Beastly, a modern version of Beauty and the Beast (HarperTeen, 2007) and A Kiss in Time, a Sleeping Beauty retelling, (HarperTeen, 2009) by Alex Flinn
The Thirteenth Princess, based upon The Twelve Dancing Princesses story, by Diane Zahler (HarperCollins, 2009)
Beast, with Beauty and the Beast in ancient Persia, by Donna Jo Napoli (Atheneum, 2000)
Turning Old to New
So what if you want to write a fairytale based novel? Creative thinking can help writers break into the market.
Lise Lunge-Larsen, author of the picture book The Adventures of Thor the Thunder God (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) said, “The images and the plots of the old folktales are so compelling that they will never go out of style. Writers should feel like the storytellers of old, free to retell an old tale in their own voice and updated to suit our times.”
Natalie M. Rosinsky, author of Write Your Own Fairytale and Write Your Own Folk Tale, (Compass Point Books, 2008, 2009) advises, “Think globally. Examine every continent and the multiple cultures that may thrive within a country to find tales or ideas for tales that intrigue you.”
To update a traditional folk or fairytale, she suggests setting the story in a new location. You might also change the point of view, for example telling a princess story from the prince’s viewpoint. Humor is another bonus.
Ultimately, a story needs a unique concept, and something more. “Your characters have to sing,” author Maggie Stiefvater says. “We’ll read Sleeping Beauty one thousand times over if the characters are brilliant and different every time.”
Chris adapted this material from her article Folktales and Fairytales: Old Stories with a New Twist, first printed in Book Markets for Children’s Writers 2010.