Sarah Mlynowski is currently marking a dual milestone: her Whatever After series has topped five million copies in print and has entered double digits in title count. Last month Scholastic released Sugar and Spice, the 10th installment of this middle-grade series that puts a spirited spin on fairytales. The series centers on siblings Abby and Jonah, who discover a magic mirror that delivers them to the world of fairytales. After encountering familiar characters and fiddling with their tried-and-true stories, the kids must set things right. In Sugar and Spice, Abby and Jonah try to devise a way to escape after not-so-sweet Hansel and Gretel trap them in the witch’s candy house.
Mlynowski (whose numerous credits also include the middle-grade Upside-Down Magic series, coauthored with Emily Jenkins and Lauren Myracle) told PW that Whatever After had its inspirational roots in her own childhood—as well as her daughter’s. “I think stories that I made up when I was very young sowed the seeds for this series,” she said. “I completely loved fractured fairytales, and liked fracturing them myself. I’d tell stories to my mom, and she’d write them down. I remember dictating the story of ‘The Princess and the M&M,’ since I hated vegetables, including peas, and I loved chocolate!”
The author again exercised creative license when she began reading fairytales to her daughter Chloe, now seven. “As I read her classic stories that I loved, I found myself changing the endings, because I couldn’t stomach them,” she said. “I didn’t like that the only way Cinderella can escape living in her stepmother’s house is by marrying the prince, or that the Little Mermaid had to give up her tail and her tongue, and in Hans Christian Andersen’s original version, she turns to foam. I knew I wanted to inject well-known fairytales with some girl power, and that led to Whatever After.”
Initially envisioning it as a four-book series, the author first tackled the tale of Snow White, in Fairest of All, which Scholastic released in May 2012. The plot of that novel crystalized quite easily, Mlynowski recalled. “I had an image of Abby and Jonah stopping Snow White from eating the poisoned apple,” she said. “After I started with that visual, the story came together quickly.”
And the Plots Thicken…
Whatever After is clearly a pet project of Scholastic executive editor Aimee Friedman, who has edited the series since its second book, 2013’s If the Shoe Fits, Mlynowski’s take on Cinderella. “I was a friend of Sarah’s before I became editor of the series, and I have cheered it on from the start,” she said. “Editorially, it is right up my alley, and I feel very lucky to work on it.”
The editor praised Mlynowski’s skill at weaving multiple threads into her recast fairytales. “Sarah’s books are subversive in a very subtle way,” she said. “She pays loving homage to the original heroines while adding a special twist to their stories. She’s very adept at passing along empowering messages in a way that is not at all preachy, but lots of fun—that’s kind of her secret magic potion! These stories appeal to parents as well as kids. Sarah’s princesses rescue themselves—who doesn’t want to read that?”
The series’ five million in-print tally represents North American sales alone; to date the books have been published in 29 foreign editions. Sugar and Spice has a 75,000-copy announced first printing, and with its publication Scholastic updated its dedicated website, which includes downloadable activities for teachers, games, and videos.
“A lot of the series’ success is owed to Sarah herself,” Friedman said. “She is an incredible advocate of her books, and knows how to speak to readers. Also, our art department did a great job with the look of the books, and of course Scholastic has such an incredible reach into schools through fairs—it’s really one of those perfect storms.”
And Mlynowski has more tweaked happily-ever-afters in the works. Due in fall 2017 is a Whatever After “Super Special” edition, Abby in Wonderland, which takes Abby on a different type of adventure: for the first time, she tumbles into a book—Alice in Wonderland—rather than into a fairytale, and with three friends rather than with her brother.
After that, the author said she plans to add “at least four more” tales to the series. “I am so delighted that the series has found an audience, and it’s so gratifying to me that there are now 10 books,” she said. “I thought that the concept, and the girl power element, would resonate, but I’ve written more than 30 books, so I’m aware that you just never know what will work or not. I’d love to keep writing Whatever After books as long as Scholastic wants to publish them—there are so many great fairytales still to do!
Whatever After #10: Sugar and Spice by Sarah Mlynowski. Scholastic, $14.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-545-85106-0