I’ve been trying to find inclusive, feminist, and Own Voices versions of fairy tales, as well as solid traditional and twisted versions — and the search has been harder than I had expected. Here are my favorites. (For ideas on teaching fairy tales, you can see my guide here.)
Interstellar Cinderella, Deborah Underwood [Amazon | Bookshop] — A feminist retelling of Cinderella: she’s a space mechanic here, dreaming of working on the biggest and coolest rockets in the galaxy. Instead of a glass slipper, she leaves behind a socket wrench, and although the prince would love to get married, she just wants her dream job (and she gets it). Told in wonderful rhyme, it’s a pleasure to read aloud.
Sootypaws: A Cinderella Story, Maggie Rudy [Amazon | Bookshop] — The pictures in Maggie Rudy’s books are exquisitely posed scenes featuring tiny mice in ingenious, elaborate sets. Here, Cinderella is a mouse and her stepmother and stepsisters are rats, and (thankfully) Rudy stays away from equating beauty with goodness. While the stepsisters are cruel, the mouse has always been kind to her friends in nature. Instead of a fairy godmother, it’s these friends who help her, with a spider weaving lace for her collar and ants making her shoes with leaves and thorns (and her carriage features firefly lanterns). When she meets the prince, they dance, of course, but more importantly, they laugh and talk with each other, truly loving each other’s company. As she’s running from the ball, the mouse leaves her shoes behind — they were irritating her feet — and when she and the prince find each other, both decide to be rid of their fussy shoes forever, so they can run off and have adventures together. It’s a sweet, funny, lovely ending to the story.
Zombierella, Joseph Coelho and Freya Hartas [Amazon | Book Depository] — Poet Joseph Coelho’s Fairy Tales Gone Bad series is a real winner: school-worthy novels in verse that kids would happily devour even on their own time. Each updated fairy tale features a clever, resourceful Black heroine who creates her own happily-ever-after out of truly gruesome and ghoulish circumstances. In this one, Cinderella is resurrected as Zombierella after a brutal fall down some stairs – and for some reason that new prince in town blacks out his windows and can’t stand the smell of garlic… Coelho’s updates to the classic fairy tale are so fiendishly clever and satisfying that I don’t want to give too much more away – it’s such a treat. Every page is filled with fabulous illustrations, the language is superb, and if you want to teach this one (as I did), the publishers have put out some tremendously good teaching guides (available in the sidebar here). Books like this make teaching a blast. I wish I had 50 more like this! (But do check out Coelho’s Frankenstiltskin [Amazon | Book Depository] and Creeping Beauty [Amazon | Book Depository], too.)
Cinderella Liberator, Rebecca Solnit [Amazon | Bookshop] — The marvelous Rebecca Solnit has written a children’s book, and a rewrite of Cinderella at that. It’s absolutely exquisite. It retains all the charm, magic, and simplicity of fairy tales, and it’s gorgeously paired with revered illustrator Arthur Rackham’s delicate silhouette illustrations. But the moral of this Cinderella is far more modern and beautiful: we should all be liberators, and we should all be free to live our lives authentically and well. You might find yourself wishing she would rewrite all of the fairy tales, but, then again, this version of Cinderella presents such a thorough philosophy of living… what else could one add? Solnit’s book is a wonderful one for a child, but her extraordinary compassion and empathy might touch adult hearts, too. (It’s quite a long rewrite, so this one is probably best for kindergarten+.)
Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood, Jerry Pinkney [Amazon | Bookshop] — An excellent, completely classic version — better than you’ll find in most compilations — featuring a Black Red Riding Hood. Since it remains faithful to the original version, here the wolf is killed and cut open by the woodsman, though all we see of that is the shadow of an ax through the open cottage door. The illustrations are beautiful and largely serious, but the picture of the wolf squeezed into the grandmother’s bed is still pretty delightful.
Federico and the Wolf, Rebecca J. Gomez and Elisa Chavari [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, Federico has just finished shopping for pico de gallo ingredients when he encounters the wily wolf. Here, the wolf impersonates his grandfather, and instead of being rescued by a stranger, Federico gets rid of the wolf by stuffing a hot pepper in its mouth. It’s a good retelling, written in very readable rhymes, and at the back there’s a recipe for pico de gallo, too.
Lon Po Po, Ed Young [Amazon | Bookshop] — Ed Young’s classic Red Riding Hood tale from China has many intriguing changes: here, there are three children, and rather than meeting the wolf on a walk, the wolf comes knocking at their door while their mother is away. The siblings are quick-thinking and clever and the wolf delightfully gullible. I think this is the scariest and most atmospheric of the Red Riding Hoods, and it’s also the one that best conveys the mysterious magic of a fairy tale.
The Girl and the Wolf, Katherena Vermette and Julie Flett [Amazon] — Vemette, an indigenous writer from Canada, was inspired to write this book after reading Red Riding Hood-style stories in European fairy tales. She wanted her book to present an alternative to clashes with wildlife: communion, peace, support, and thanks. In this book, a kind wolf helps a lost girl find her way out of the woods. Rather than simply guiding her, the wolf encourages the girl to think and feel her way back to safety. The gentleness and kindness these two creatures, the wolf and the girl, show to each other is heartwarming.
Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Susy Pilgrim Waters [Amazon] — Although this folktale isn’t as closely connected to Red Riding Hood as the others here, it makes for a great comparison. Charmingly, in this tale it’s a clever grandma who sets off through the forest to visit her daughter. On the way, she meets three hungry animals: a fox, a bear, and a tiger. She convinces each animal not to eat her until her return journey, when she’s plumper, but when it’s time to return home, how will she get past the hungry animals?
The Complete Polly and the Wolf, Catherine Storr [Amazon | Bookshop] — The first book in this compilation is unquestionably the best one, but nevertheless each story adds another layer of charm and meaning. The wolf’s optimism, despite unrelenting failures, that he’ll eventually be able to outsmart Polly and devour her is touching and entirely sympathetic. Polly is clever, but you love the wolf. Eventually you might begin to feel that Polly and the wolf need each other and, despite their antagonistic relationship, maybe even begin to love each other. The best stories here feel complete and perfect, like the very best fairy tales. And they’re often laugh-out-loud funny.
The Three Little Pigs
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this classic retelling, the clever wolf shares his side of the story, claiming that his intentions were innocent, maybe even good! If not for those pesky sneezes, none of this would have happened. He’s trying very hard to be persuasive, but do you believe him?
The Three Pigs, David Wiesner [Amazon | Bookshop] — Wiesner’s books are always beautiful and surreal, and here the pigs realize that they can simply walk out of the story pages and craft their own ending (after rescuing other creatures that are typically killed in fairy stories, too). It’s a fun story, though older children will probably understand and appreciate this one more than preschoolers will.
The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury [Amazon | Bookshop] — This version of The Three Little Pigs reverses the roles: here the wolves are sweetly building their homes and the pig is the one who is bent on destruction. The book starts with the brick house and moves to even hardier materials, and beware: the pig really is determined to ruin even concrete and steel houses (there is an explosion). No one is punished at the end, and although the pig’s conversion isn’t really convincing (that’s all it took?), I don’t think children will mind very much. (But if they do, that’s interesting to talk about, too!)
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas, Natasha Yim and Grace Zong [Amazon | Bookshop] — This Goldilocks variation centers around the Chinese New Year: Goldy is instructed to bring a plate of turnip cakes to some panda neighbors, but when no one answers the door, she goes into their house (and one disaster leads to another). A nice thing about this version is that after she witnesses the pandas’ distress, she goes home and ponders the consequences of her actions. Nothing in her own comfortable home is enjoyable until she’s righted all the wrongs she caused, and once she’s made amends, there are joys waiting for her. The back of the book has a recipe for turnip cakes and some details about the Chinese New Year. You could make the turnip cakes, but in this version congee replaces the porridge, so you could make that instead, if you like.
Goldilocks and Just One Bear, Leigh Hodgkinson [Amazon | Bookshop] — Instead of a rewrite of Goldilocks, this is a sequel. Baby Bear, now grown, is on vacation in New York City and needs to escape from the noise and chaos. He wanders into an apartment… and you can probably guess whose apartment it is. This one rewards careful attention to the illustrations and can be quite funny. The lovely reunion between Goldilocks and the bear at the end is a nice resolution, showing that there really aren’t hard feelings between them anymore.
Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, Mo Willems [Amazon | Bookshop] — Here, three dinosaurs use their inviting house as a trap for a delicious and unsuspecting child. Willems’s re-write is properly zany, but some of the jokes might go over the heads of younger preschool readers. One nice element, however, is the consideration of perspective at the end of the book: there’s one moral for Goldilocks, but there’s a different one for the dinosaurs.
The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid, Jerry Pinkney [Amazon | Bookshop] — This is the only telling of The Little Mermaid you’ll ever need: a beautiful, perfect, move-you-to-tears fairy tale. Pinkney swaps out romantic love for love to adventure and connection — his mermaid, Melody, yearns to explore the human world and to have a friend. When she does finally meet her human friend, Zion, the moments they share are truly touching, and Pinkney adds brilliant details that I won’t spoil here. What else could you want from a fairy tale? It’s all here.
Frankenstiltskin, Joseph Coelho and Freya Hartas [Amazon | Book Depository] — Poet Joseph Coelho’s Fairy Tales Gone Bad series is a real winner: school-worthy novels in verse that kids would happily devour even on their own time. Each updated fairy tale features a clever, resourceful Black heroine who creates her own happily-ever-after out of truly gruesome and ghoulish circumstances. In Frankenstiltskin, strong and empathic taxidermist Bryony is uniquely talented at her craft. Death-dreams transport her to animals’ past lives, and she uses the information she gains there to honor the animals in taxidermy after their death. (Bryony only works on animals that have died of natural causes, and she’s a devoted vegan, too.) But her father’s boasting attracts the king’s attention, and soon Bryony is locked up in the palace, commanded to do the impossible: bring dead animals back to life. I won’t give away too much more, because it’s a brilliant and satisfying mash-up of two beloved monster tales. Every page is filled with fabulous illustrations, the language is superb, and if you want to teach this one (as I did), the publishers have put out some tremendously good teaching guides (available in the sidebar here). Books like this make teaching a blast. I wish I had 50 more like this! (But do check out Coelho’s Zombierella [Amazon | Book Depository] and Creeping Beauty [Amazon | Book Depository], too.)
The Ugly Duckling
The Duckling, Kamila Shamsie [Amazon | Bookshop] — Shamsie reworks the classic story “The Ugly Ducking” so that instead of encouraging people to “stick to those who look like they do,” it advocates for the right to be different, to join with others in kindness. It’s a long fairy tale, with beautiful pictures in sunset colors, and of course the duckling meets with all sorts of horrible mistreatment along the way. But eventually she wonders, “Must I always hide from the company of others, believing everyone will treat me unkindly? If I do that, I may be safe but I’ll be always lonely. Is it better, perhaps, to risk cruelty if it also means taking a chance on kindness?” It’s a brave choice she makes, and despite the hardness of her life, she ultimately takes a stand for open-heartedness, vulnerability, and love. The story is filled with feeling, and the end is very, very touching.
Stories Featuring Many Fairy Tale Characters
The Jolly Postman, Janet and Allan Ahlberg [Amazon | Bookshop] — A classic interactive book about a postal worker delivering mail from fairy tale characters to other fairy tale characters. The book is filled with little envelopes that children can reach into to retrieve the mail. It’s delightfully clever and quite fun to read other people’s mail, too (at least here!).
The Goldilocks Variations, Allan Ahlberg and Jessica Ahlberg [Amazon] — Another great Ahlberg book about fairy tale characters. This one is the most elaborate, the most like a work of art, and best suited for kids kindergarten+. Here, Goldilocks is retold several times, getting more and more unusual with each telling. The final retelling features loads of different fairy tale characters from other stories, too. This book has lots of amazing little flaps and pull-tabs, and in the middle is “Goldilocks the Play,” a mini-book to take out of a sleeve and read. Amazingly, this mini-book has flaps, fold-out pages, and an incredible, tiny 3D pop-up. The book is somewhat expensive, but it’s the product of a lot of craftsmanship and creativity.
Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker, Jessica Ahlberg [Amazon] — Lucy is trying to read a fairy tale to her inattentive dog, but when he runs off and she follows, she finds that they’ve entered the land of classic fairy tales. Lucy warns the characters of the dangers in their plots, and they all escape together through clever cut-out windows in the book. A sweet story for children who are already familiar with many classic stories.
Endlessly Ever After, Laurel Snyder and Dan Santat [Amazon | Bookshop]
Suitable and enjoyable even for preschoolers, this choose-your-own-adventure picture book is a real delight. Here, the reader gets to make choices for Rosie, who is on her way to visit grandma, of course – and the first choice is as simple as choosing which coat to wear. Depending on your decisions, Rosie might find herself in “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “The Three Little Pigs,” or “Hansel and Gretel” (and there might also be a goose!). It’s often unclear what the “right” choice is, in fact, and that ambiguity gives each read-through an exciting unpredictability. A really engaging book to read and re-read (and re-read again).
Dear Peter Rabbit, Alma Flor Ada and Leslie Tryon [Amazon | Bookshop] — This clever book of letters between fairy tale characters takes place after Goldilocks has wrecked the Three Bears’ home and Peter Rabbit has lost his clothing in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Now, the Three Little Pigs want Peter to come to their housewarming party, but for obvious reasons they keep needing to reschedule. Meanwhile, Goldilocks sees a girl in red talking to a wolf in the woods. Will everyone make it to Goldilocks’s party? The stories blend together beautifully, the letters are absolutely charming, and the end is very sweet. (The sequel, Yours Truly, Goldilocks, takes place directly after the events of the first book and is pleasant but not nearly as good as the original.)
Nibbles: The Book Monster, Emma Yarlett [Amazon | Usborne] — The monster Nibbles loves to eat books, and in this creative picture book, he’s eating his way through a library of fairy tales: Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The book is filled with little “nibbled” cut-outs, and each fairy tale is a mini-book nested within the pages.
Fairy Tale Adventure, Lily Murray and Wesley Robins [Amazon | Bookshop] — Similar to the choose-your-own-adventure books, this picture book acts like a fairy tale menu: choose your hero, your outfit, your path, your food… and children can provide the narrative to link them all together. It’s great fun to look through these menus and pick what suits your mood. (And this book is quite inclusive, too.)
Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls, Usborne [Amazon | Usborne] — This collection of fairy tales retells lesser-known stories featuring girls as active heroes. “The Daring Princess” is an adaptation of the Grimms’ “The Iron Stove,” for instance, and “Fearless Fiona and the Spellbound Knight” is based on the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin.” Here you’ll find plenty of princesses and even some love and marriage, but not all of these young women want to be married — many simply want to keep adventuring. The writing isn’t as beautiful or moving as Solnit’s or Shamsie’s, and I wish it had a few more illustrations, but it’s a nice and rare thing to have a collection of tales with clever female heroes. (Usborne has a few more similar titles on their site to check out, too, if you like this one.)
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