Retellings are not a new trend. From Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine to Pride by Ibi Zoboi, YA authors have mined, and continue to draw on, the Western canon for inspiration. What is noteworthy about several recent and forthcoming releases this season is how their authors are intentionally subverting their source texts through the lenses of gender, race, and sexuality.
“There are so many so-called classics that have been held up for generations as this standard of excellence—but why?” asks Emily Settle, associate editor at Feiwel and Friends and editor of the imprint’s new Remixed Classics series. The series’ first book, A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee, leans on the legend of Chinese pirate queen Ching Shih to reimagine Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island; the second, So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow, stars four Black girls coming of age during the Civil War, a nod to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. And the third Remixed Classics title, Travelers Along the Way by Aminah Mae Safi (Mar. 2022), is a Robin Hood–inspired adventure set in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade; here, the merry band of misfits use cunning and thievery to foil a usurper queen and restore peace.
“These classics are widely thought to accurately depict real history, but that’s simply not true,” Settle says. “It’s even more harmful to teach it as such to young people. What do these new books bring to the original texts? If anything, a much needed, long overdue reality check!”
Settle hopes the series serves as a “Trojan horse” of sorts: “We’re looking to both provide engaging reads as an alternative to these classics,” she notes, “and also to challenge the notion of what ‘classic’ even means.”
PW spoke with YA editors and authors of new and forthcoming fresh takes on well-known literary novels, fairy tales, theater, and even films, on the enduring appeal of updating old stories. “The goal of a lot of these remixes, retellings, and reimaginings—and certainly of our series—is decentering whiteness, decentering heteronormativity,” Settle says. “That’s really important work.”
Everything is canon
Western literature, often the backbone of U.S. high school English courses, gets a remake this season. Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood (Wednesday, Oct.) is an Ethiopian-inspired fantasy retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. “I wanted to do my best to nod to the very important scenes in the original text but also make it my own,” Blackwood says. Her Jamaican American upbringing also allows her to look at the text through a postcolonial lens. “A person of color being this crazy woman up in the attic and villain of the whole thing—it’s not about that anymore. The Black characters are the heroes. I chose Ethiopia as my inspiration not just because of the folklore, but also because the country was never colonized.”
Hers is a romantic novel, Blackwood says, but one that asks readers “not to hold the original so dear to your heart as you read, because it’s going to be different. It’s a haunted house book, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Epically Earnest by Molly Horan (HMH, June 2022) winks at its inspiration, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. An LGBTQ romantic comedy of manners in the vein of Wilde’s play, the novel features Jane Grady, who is searching for her biological family while navigating an all-consuming crush.
The Witch Owl Parliament by David Bowles (Tu, Oct.), a graphic novel deemed “ultracool” in its PW review, sets Frankenstein in colonial Mexico, centering Mexican mythology and Indigenous cultural references. The book is also a genre mash-up—steampunk, fantasy, and an alternate history—and the first in a series set in this world.
Sayantani DasGupta’s YA debut, Debating Darcy (Scholastic, Mar. 2022), transposes Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen to the high-stakes world of high school debate. “The thing that draws me to Austen is her humor and her ability to be witty and dry and poke at social conventions and do social critique,” DasGupta says. “An important part of writing Debating Darcy was to tap into the humor and the wit and the love of words that Austen has.”
DasGupta explicitly addresses questions of representation and reimagining European and American literature in her text. “It’s a little meta because the characters themselves have this conversation,” she says. “Leela [the protagonist] thinks to herself, ‘If I was back in the day of some of those stories, I would be serving the white characters. I would be the maid. I would be the scullery person, I wouldn’t be the fancy lady dancing.’ And then she asks herself, ‘Why do we need other cultures’ fanciness? Why do we need other cultures’ concepts of fanciness when we have our own?’ I’m trying to think through Leela, what does it mean to be a Brown girl enamored with these sorts of stories? How do you include yourself? Are we making space for ourselves and letting history off the hook by doing so? Can both of those ideas exist simultaneously? I wanted to problematize it without having an answer, because I think the answer is really complicated.”
The book also includes a #MeToo moment, because DasGupta believes that rereading (and rewriting) canonical texts is a dynamic process, especially for marginalized creators. “The reading experience is not just the text,” she says. “It’s the space created between the text and the reader. That space has to be filled in by the reader’s life and the reader’s perspective. When you do a retelling, you’re entering that liminal space and creating a new shape—making new bridges between that original text and your own life experience.”
Several authors have taken another look at Shakespeare, who is also ever-present on school syllabi.
Romeo and Juliet meets Chinese mythology in An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan (Little, Brown, Apr. 2022). Here, the star-crossed pair, Hunter Yee and Luna Chang, are reincarnations of Chinese gods—Houyi, an archer, and Chang’e, the moon goddess. Chloe Gong also riffs on Romeo and Juliet in Our Violent Ends (McElderry, Nov.), the sequel to These Violent Delights. Gong’s take is set in 1927 Shanghai, a city on the brink of revolution.
Samantha Cohoe’s fantasy Bright Ruined Things (Wednesday, Feb. 2022) is a spin on The Tempest. Like the play, the book features a magical island and is about belonging. Cohoe’s take is set in the 1920s and sets up a series of magical mysteries that only Mae, the protagonist, can unravel.
Waking Romeo by Kathryn Barker (Flatiron, Jan. 2022) is a genre-bending, time-traveling twist on Shakespeare set in postapocalyptic London. “It’s not just Romeo and Juliet, but also Wuthering Heights,” Barker says. “The stories are completely entwined in an alternate universe. In school, these works were depicted as epic love stories, and I bought into that as a girl. But when I went back to them as an adult, I realized they were terrible and unhealthy ideals about love.” Barker hopes her book serves as a counterexample, particularly in terms of inclusivity, race, and gender, “not just in the way women are depicted, but also the way teenage love is depicted.”
Barker considers her work in conversation with her source texts. “Writers are realizing that classic works are a rich vein to tap into,” she explains. “If you want to comment on race or gender or issues of social justice that are relevant to teens, what better way to do so than to have it set off against something that we understand as a frame of reference? Retellings are interesting because they are a barometer of where society is at and is moving.”
Return to Camelot
Centuries-old Arthurian legends continue to inspire modern creators. Recently, director David Lowery cast Dev Patel as Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, in his film The Green Knight, bringing renewed interest to this world of English and Welsh folklore. Robyn Schneider’s The Other Merlin (Viking, out now) puts a rom-com spin on Camelot. In the book, Emry Merlin, a bisexual teen wizard masquerading as her brother, falls in love with Prince Arthur, toys with Lord Gawain, and annoys Princess Guinevere.
The Color of Dragons by R.A. Salvatore (HarperTeen, Oct.) is a pre-Arthurian story about the origins of Merlin—and magic itself. The book draws on lesser-known dragon lore as well as the legends of the Round Table, and spins a romance between Maggie, who can’t yet control her gift of magic, and Griffin, infamous for hunting dragonlike beasts on behalf of the king. “The book’s second half is breathless, blood-soaked, and brutal,” PW’s review said.
The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White (Delacorte, Dec.) is the third book in the Camelot Rising trilogy, which centers on Guinevere and her reimagined genesis. “We consider it a feminist spin on the world of Arthur and Arthurian legend,” says Wendy Loggia, v-p and senior executive editor at Delacorte and the book’s editor. “Having this character be the driver and be someone who has agency in what happens to her—that hasn’t always been the case with legends of the past. Kiersten loves seeking out stories that we might know, but taking those classic characters and twisting them into a version of a story that’s uniquely her own.”
Tale as old as time
Fairy tales are getting a makeover, too. In Briarheart (Little, Brown, out now), Mercedes Lackey offers a fresh, feminist retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” in her story of sisterly love, rather than romantic love. Cyla Panin also refashions “Beauty and the Beast” into a story about siblings in Stalking Shadows (Amulet, out now).
Rebecca Kim Wells queers her source text in Briar Girls (S&S, Nov.). In this adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty,” Lena, who is cursed, and Miranda, who is on a quest to wake a sleeping princess in order to liberate her city from its tyrannical ruler, join forces and wits on a journey of adventure and self-discovery. “Wells’s straightforward handling of bisexual Lena’s sex-positive attitude is a breath of fresh air,” PW’s review said.
Marissa Meyer combines horror and “Rumpelstiltskin” in Gilded (Feiwel and Friends, Nov.), the first in a duology. In it, the cursed miller’s daughter teams up with a ghost to thwart the evil king.
Young women are often at the center of these stories, including in two forthcoming Putnam titles, says Jen Klonsky, president and publisher of Putnam Books for Young Readers and Razorbill Books: The Bone Spindle by Leslie Vedder (Jan. 2022) and Cinder & Glass by Melissa de la Cruz (Apr. 2022). “We’re calling The Bone Spindle ‘Sleeping Beauty’ meets ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,’ ” she explains. “It’s this very female-forward story. Briar Rose is a prince under a sleeping spell and Fi is smart, brave, a bit snarky—and she has to save the prince. Fi also has an adventuring partner who is gay. These two women have scenes in which they are escaping by the seat of their pants and helping each other through things. And the stakes are high. Too often, those kinds of scenes had been reserved for men and boys.”
Cinder & Glass, a retelling of “Cinderella” set in the royal court of Versailles, serves as a commentary on class and gender. “It doesn’t have the ending of the ‘Cinderella’ tale that I grew up knowing,” Klonsky says. “In some retellings, and certainly in the Disney version, Cinderella is kind to the point of naivete. In Mel’s story, Cendrillon is her own person and has all the hallmarks of an authentic young woman. She is not afraid to call out someone for bad behavior. She finds a way to be true to who she is and what she wants without being cruel to others. And that stands in stark contrast to other characters in the story, which I think is true to the source. It reads like the fairy tale we know, but also has a healthy dose of feminism.”
Fairy tales are often a go-to for gatekeepers, such as parents, teachers, and librarians, Klonsky adds. “They’re sort of imprinted on our DNA,” she adds, “and it’s really exciting to revisit them through the lens of coming of age and young adulthood, because adolescence is filled with scary and out-of-control moments and so are fairy tales.”
Works for the stage and screen also provide scaffolding for new YA novels.
Jennieke Cohen draws on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and its well-known adaptation, My Fair Lady. Set in 1830s England, in an alternate-historical London, My Fine Fellow (HarperTeen, Jan. 2022) brings together Helena Higgins, posh and top of her class at culinary school; half-Filipina Penelope Pickering, who is trying to prove the worth of non-European cuisines to all of England; and Elijah Little, a Jewish boy who hawks his pastries on the streets. Helena and Penelope attempt to transform Elijah from a street vendor to a gentleman chef.
“I wanted to switch the genders because Pygmalion is very much a product of its time, and I wanted to deal with some modern issues on top of the issues that were already there,” Cohen says. “I wanted to deal with anti-Semitism and feminism because those are things that are cropping up again—or that never go away. These are things I’ve dealt with in my own life, and a lot of young people still do.”
Cohen’s reimagining is as accurate to the historical period as possible; an author’s note is clear about what actually happened and what is fiction. “If you’re reading historical fiction, it’s always nice to know what the author has fabricated vs. what is true,” she says. She hopes that readers are inspired to research the era further. “I hope that they get a sense of joy out of it and escapism, because it’s a rags-to-riches story set in a different time period, but also that they get a different perspective of what life might’ve been like at that time for Jewish people and mixed-race people.”
Emma Lord also flips genders in When You Get the Chance (Wednesday, Jan. 2022), inspired by the musical Mamma Mia! and subsequent Meryl Streep/Amanda Seyfried film. In the book, aspiring Broadway star Millie Price stumbles upon her father’s emo LiveJournal from 2003, which launches her on a search for her birth mother, who is one of three women: Steph, a talent agency receptionist; Farrah, a dance teacher; or Beth, a stage enthusiast.
David Valdes’s teen daughter, a fan of the Netflix series Stranger Things and all things 1980s, prompted him to reimagine the 1985 hit Back to the Future for a new generation. In Spin Me Right Round (Bloomsbury, Nov.), Luis Gonzalez, a gay, Cuban American teen, travels back in time to his parents’ era to save a closeted classmate’s life. “Luis is a kid who thinks everything is about him, until traveling to the past makes him stretch and grow in terms of his own sense of self,” Valdes says. “His own story becomes impacted and affected by other people and their choices and this idea of being community, of watching out for each other, of what makes your life possible.”
Valdes says he is not retelling but reclaiming. “A good story lives and grows over time,” he explains. “When the people retelling the stories are different and the people populating the stories are different, it gives them new value. It brings them back to life. And it doesn’t require you to reject the old. I didn’t stop loving Back to the Future because I didn’t see myself in it. Now, since I seized the wheel, literally steering the narrative, I get to find my place in it.”