Feiwel and Friends has announced the 2021 launch of Reclaimed Classics, a YA series that will offer a fresh perspective on timeless works of literature. Written by various authors, the novels will uphold the core plot points, characters, and themes of the familiar versions of classic novels, yet these key components will be filtered through the lenses of the writers’ diverse experiences. Spearheaded by assistant editor Emily Settle, Reclaimed Classics will debut in spring 2021 with Treasure Island by C.B. Lee and will continue with Little Women by Bethany C. Morrow (fall 2021), Robin Hood by Aminah Mae Safi (winter 2022), and Wuthering Heights by Tasha Suri (spring 2022).
Settle explained that the series was inspired by “two seemingly random” events that occurred in February 2019. First she read a Twitter thread in which New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie discussed how Batman would be different if Bruce Wayne were black. A few weeks later, while watching a recent movie version of Robin Hood, she thought, “ ‘Isn’t this just the same exact story all over again?’ That got me thinking about how so many ‘classics’ have been adapted and read and taught so many times without tangibly changing. It would be so interesting to instead see these classics told from new cultural perspectives, and see how those new perspectives inherently change the story. I emailed my publisher, Jean Feiwel, that night to pitch the idea for the series, and she was all for it!”
The concept of “reclaiming” literary masterworks, Settle said, derives from the observation that “a vast majority of the works considered to be ‘classics’ and even historical fiction in general center on a straight, white—often male—narrative. It’s not a space that’s particularly welcome to creators from marginalized backgrounds, but those stories belong there, too. They’re needed. So, in this context I see ‘reclaimed’ as referring to how our amazing authors are taking back that space that has also rightfully belonged to diverse creators all along.”
Finding New Treasure
Settle’s selection of classics to feature and authors to tap was rather serendipitous, the editor said, noting that “each author-classic pairing came about in a different way. Treasure Island was first on my list because when I was in school, I was fascinated by Chinese maritime history and for me, re-envisioning this novel from a Chinese cultural perspective was a no-brainer. I’d met C.B. Lee at Comic-Con the year before and was familiar with her work, so she was at the top of my list of authors to approach. Turned out she was as much a fan of the pirate queen Ching Shih as I was!”
Lee, who eagerly dove into the project, said, “I am excited to be working with the spirit of adventure and discovery that I’ve always loved about Treasure Island and bringing it to the South China Sea with a courageous girl at the forefront. Greed and desire for riches drive the characters in the original, and while Robert Louis Stevenson explores the idea that greed only leads to dissatisfaction, I want to examine in what ways people can lead fulfilling lives despite the limits put upon them.”
Another of Lee’s goals in revisiting this classic, she explained, is “to explore how outcasts of history, people who would choose their own destiny rather than be a part of a society that did not want them, defined family and formed communities in their own design. What would freedom mean for a young queer girl in the 1800s? What treasure would she hold most dear? In my own exploration of Treasure Island, I want to bring human connection to the forefront.”
Reimaging the March Sisters
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women also headlined Settle’s list of classics to reclaim for the series, in part, she said, due to the recent movie adaptation and the attendant conversation “about how it was just the same white narrative that’s already been told so many times. I knew Bethany C. Morrow from Twitter and based on my interactions with her there and her writing career thus far, I thought she would be a great fit to recast Little Women featuring a black family. We talked on the phone for an hour about the lack of diversity within the representation of black people’s experiences during the Civil War in mainstream media. As soon as we hung up, I rushed back to my desk to send an offer to her agent.”
Reclaimed Classics impressed Morrow as “a series for those of us who know and love stories that didn’t reflect our marginalized identities, and who want to correct that.” She decided to set her novel at the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island in 1863, at a time when some of the residents were emancipated and some were not.
“Every earlier adaptation of Little Women has cast another quartet of white women to tell this supposedly universal story,” the author said. “Worse, it takes place during the Civil War, but doesn’t involve or present any narratives of black American women at the time. Instead we’re repeatedly served a story of northern white Americans, which becomes synonymous with ‘abolitionists’ and ‘good’—and there needn’t be any actual evidence of that, nor any consideration for how a black American from anywhere in the country might think about that characterization. If what makes Little Women a classic is the universal story of love and sisterhood, then my novel will be a welcome adaptation among many.”
Giving a Medieval Hero a New Identity
When she considered including Robin Hood in the Reclaimed Classics lineup, Settle began thinking that “the story could have been much more interesting from the Muslim character’s perspective.” After discussing this approach with author Aminah Mae Safi, Sutton thought her idea for centering the story on a Muslim girl’s adventure during the Third Crusade was “absolutely fabulous,” and knew she had found Robin Hood’s reclaimer.
Safi recalled that she “grew up on Disney’s fox version of Robin Hood, who made me feel like being the cleverest, the canniest, and the most willing to not give up was what made you heroic.” Yet as she got older and learned more about the history of the Crusades, this hero’s story became “increasingly complicated” for her.
“I’m a Muslim woman and Robin has, since the 19th century, canonically been a crusader,” she said. “He’s someone who is deeply invested in the status quo and in his fight to rob the rich to give to the poor because he wants his own ancestral lands back. By taking this medieval legend of a crusader and turning that into the story of a young Muslim woman who is fighting to protect her own homeland from invaders and her own region’s fragile peace, I can also reclaim a piece of history. The medieval world was incredibly diverse and incredibly global. We all deserve to be able to see that.”
Repositioning a 19th-Century Gothic Tale
Tasha Suri suggested she revamp Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights after Settle approached her to reclaim a different classic. “Tasha didn’t feel she was the right author for that book, but she did have an exciting idea for Wuthering Heights,” the editor said. “She proposed focusing on how, when the British colonized India and white men traveled there and had children with Indian women, if the children passed as white, they were then sent back to England to be integrated into ‘proper’ white society. Tasha had a brilliant plan for weaving that little-known part of history into Wuthering Heights.”
Suri called the classic novel a favorite of hers, “a strange and polarizing book: dark and gothic, passionately romantic and pointedly cruel. It’s also the story of the destructive influence of a boy who doesn’t belong: a boy who looks ‘foreign’ without having any particular history of cultural identity; a monstrous boy who has no place, no family, no right to want things, and wants them anyway. I want to write a reclamation that says: everyone comes from somewhere, and colonialism may try to make us its monsters, but we don’t have to let it. I hope my re-imagining will also help make readers a little more aware of the long, long history of South Asians in Britain. There’s so much history that we’re not taught that young readers deserve to know about.”
Settle said that she “absolutely” anticipates that Reclaimed Classics will extend beyond the inaugural four titles. She noted that the series is being formulated as a cohesive collection, “one with the express intention of challenging the assumption that ‘classics’ are the standard of excellence in literature and can’t be improved upon. I don’t believe that’s true. Anyone who says you can’t rewrite history probably just doesn’t want you to try.”