From the Brothers Grimm to Hans Christian Andersen, men-writers have cornered the market on fairy tales ever since forever. These famous stories are chock-full of all the -ISMs: classism, sexism, racism, looksism, ageism, and of course let’s not forget a dose of good-old-fashioned misogyny. But fear not, Progressive Parents, there’s a new batch of re-imagined fairy tales written by evolved authors (of all genders), seeking to revamp the classics, absolve the narrative sins of their predecessors, and redeem this problematic genre at the perpetual bane of Women’s Studies Majors’ existences.
What’s most exciting about these re-imagined stories is how female characters take center stage, exhibit strength, advocate for themselves, and demonstrate agency over their prescribed plots. There’s also a very welcome effort to celebrate diversity and increase representation, with several books featuring black or brown protagonists to ensure that all kids can see themselves reflected in the pages of these revived and very-necessary retellings.
Here are eight great fairytale retellings that will put your faith back in this historically icky and sexist-genre. And, if you like these, many of the authors on this list have other titles that do similar things. (Except Natalie Portman. This is the only one of these she’s done so far!)
Ditch the prince! This oceanic revision shuns that tired, fishy tale of a semi-desperate and silent mermaid to instead tell the story of friendship, family, and finding your true voice. Melody the mermaid finds a soulmate and friend in Zion, a little girl who lives on land. There’s action too with an epic battle against the slithery Sea Witch to save Melody’s family. Veteran children’s book author, Jerry Pinkney, reveals in his author’s note that he created a storyboard with over 120 thumbnail sketches to capture the emotions of the sea and story. The results are absolutely glorious, with a brown little mermaid that echoes the casting of the upcoming Disney live-action film. Whether underwater or on the sand, this beautiful rewrite reminds the little rebel in your life that: “You should never give up your voice….for anything.”
Childhood besties with BJ Novak (a picture book author in his own right) Funk brings a feisty and tongue-in-cheek twist to the fairy tale genre that includes a battle between its characters and the narrator. His latest reinvention features Little Red Riding Hood, the first black protagonist in his series. Red is whip-smart and precocious, sassing the narrator and rightfully questioning why on earth anyone would send a little girl packing alone in the woods. (I admit, my little heart swelled redder every time she issued her adorable catch-phrase: Sweet Jelly!). Cameos from other fairy tales (spoiler alert: Captain Hook and Pinocchio) make for some amusing appearances to shake up the story even more and set it off its predictable track. Another impressive authorial choice: Red’s little sister, Blue Little Riding Hood, just happens to be in a wheelchair. Crossing fingers and toes that Little Sis stars in the 4th book of this super-fun series.
Another take on everyone’s favorite crimson-caped heroine, this book follows Little Red Riding Hood’s journey, except it’s missing one very obvious ingredient---language. Yup, wordless picture books are a thing, and Red is a fete in visual storytelling. The illustrations are mostly black-and-white with pops of bright red threading throughout the pages and pulling the reader forward as if color is part of the narrative thrust or acts as its own character. There’s a surprise twist that I won’t spoil, that’s actually foreshadowed from a sneaky illustration that precedes the title page. Case in point: this sophisticated little gem might feel like it ends too quickly as you fly through the pages, but trust me, it definitely garners several re-readings.
It’s bad news for the Big Bad Wolf when a trio of piggy siblings go to Ninja School to study aikido, jujitsu, and karate. This picture book is perfect for any kid who’s into martial arts, and there’s an underlying message of persistence and sticking with lessons. With a welcome feminist twist, the star of this bully-busting fairy tale is sister pig, who is no joke when it comes to her butterfly kicks and pork chops. The wolf’s chinny-chin never stood a chance. Kiya!
Apparently, Cinderella’s got a twin you’ve never heard of named Tinderella (I suppose still better than Bumble-erella or EHarmony-erella). These sisters do everything together, right down to their evil chores and dancing with the coveted prince at the ball. Not gonna lie, I started to get a little nervous about this potentially incestuous love triangle, but luckily, there’s a not-half-bad solution to this sticky situation. Enter fairy godmother with some creative prince-multiplication on an old-school chalkboard. (Nerds rejoice: it’s math to the rescue!)
If you’ve ever wondered what the villains in fairy tales do after a long day of villainizing, this is the story-behind-the-story for you. The witches, dragons, ogres, and wolves, of course, convene in a castle that doubles as their Villain Support Group. They get together for some grub and commiserate over the pressures of keeping up their baddie ways. Hey, it’s not easy being the antagonist! These secret-softies sweetly tuck each other into bed, ending the night with candlelight reads and a baddie lullaby. A tenderly-clever and unexpected addition to your collection of get-your-kid-to-bed books. If these monsters can develop a healthy sleep routine, your little monster can too.
While animals loom large as picture book protagonists, it seems like no other beast has infiltrated the genre quite like dinosaurs. The latest in a series of prehistoric retellings takes on Rapunzel in captivity (that must be a seriously high tower to house a Pterodactyl! Or possibly a Pteranodon? Falling down a primordial pit of flying-dinosaur research is a nice side-effect of reading this book!). Turns out Pterapunzel is not just extinct, but quite the catch--she can sing and she can fly. But when an evil witch tries to hold her hostage for an eternal singing-audience of one, things get tricky. Sure, the Prince might come with a ladder, but--too late, buddy. Flying, female dinosaurs clearly know how to save themselves, advancing the theory that a girl is never more prepared to take on the world than after a great haircut. Game of Thrones and Khaleesi fans rejoice: airborne dinosaurs are back, as are heroines with intricate blonde braids.
So technically these are fables, not fairytales, but you get three stories in one here, so it’s a celebrity picture book bargain. With delightful illustrations and modern upgrades (sports commentators, Chinese takeout, skyscrapers), this tiny anthology revamps The Tortoise and the Hare, Three Little Pigs, and Country Mouse and the City Mouse. Written in rhyming couplets by celebrity reader and overachiever, Natalie Portman, there’s a nice mix of playfulness and purpose. Humor and character-building. Empathy and fun. Portman might be an Oscar-winner, but she’s still not too-cool-for-school, and thank god--will write about boogers. Available on the publisher’s website is a letter from Portman that isn’t printed in the book itself but probably should be in there. In it, she makes a really interesting case against the “feminist baby book,” and, instead, argues for narratives that simultaneously speak to both boys and girls. Portman calls for an increase in the visibility of female characters so that boys are “given enough practice or incentive getting into the female mind.” And if that weren’t progressive enough, the actress/director/activist/mother, who is also famously-vegan, just so happens to incorporate tons of fruits and veggies in all three, nutrient-dense tales. I’m onto you, Portman, and your plant-based agenda!