The 9 Best Books Based on Classic Fairytales

Fairy tale in my garden © Tatters/Flickr
Fairy tale in my garden © Tatters/Flickr
Photo of JW McCormack
1 December 2017

Fairytales occupy a place of pride in our literature, stories that serve variously as lessons, parables, or escapist fantasies. From childhood to adulthood, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault retain their ability to charm, frighten, and inspire. For folklorist Bruno Bettelheim, author of the landmark The Uses of Enchantment, fairy tales contained truth “as symbols of psychological happenings or problems.” Thus it is no surprise that writers have turned to fairytale conceits in an effort to understand our present, to translate our anxieties into fantasy and back again. Below, nine of the very best books based on classic fairytales from writers whose output is consistently engaged with the fantastic.

The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino’s work is closely associated with fairytales, but he was actually a devoted realist when, while compiling the book Italian Folktales, he realized that fantasy was an ideal form to deliver political commentary without fear of reprisal. The Cloven Viscount is among the earliest of Calvino’s excursions into the fairytale form, with the story of a nobleman split in two by a cannonball making for a tidy allegory of Italy’s postwar condition.

Courtesy Mariner Books

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

An astonishing social novel of race and the deception of appearances, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi takes the framework of Snow White to tell the story of a new stepmother, Boy; her adopted daughter Snow; and the newborn baby, Bird, whose arrival exposes the secret that binds them

Courtesy Riverhead Books

A Child Again by Robert Coover

Robert Coover is a legend who has transformed the conventions of literature again and again. With A Child Again, he turns his attention to fairytales and children’s stories, lending both sinister and satirical intent to versions of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Casey at the Bat,” “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Courtesy McSweeney's

Snow White by Donald Barthelme

The puckish short story writer Donald Barthelme’s first novel takes a modern approach to the story of Snow White that resembles Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashōmon” more than a fairy tale, with the perspectives of dwarves, princes, queens, and huntsmen exposing the absurdity of the 1960s era in which it first appeared.

Courtesy Touchtone

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber is perhaps Angela Carter’s best-known work, a collection of feminist reworkings of stories like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Bluebeard,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Puss in Boots” that revisit each with violence, sexuality, and prose so elaborately beautiful that it is almost tactile.

Courtesy Penguin Classics

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The story of man who finds himself embarking on a quest to discover the ghastly truth about his wife and child, as well as his long-vanished father, The Changeling is a chilling modern fairytale that incorporates enchanted islands, forests, and graveyards into an otherwise realist novel that is reminiscent of both Ralph Ellison and Haruki Murakami.

Courtesy Spiegel & Grau

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

A playfully comic gothic, Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt tells the story of a hapless young man named Lucy who is hired by the baron of an ancient castle, only to discover mysteries, betrayals, and love. Like a folktale infused with black humor, the novel manages to be both mordantly funny and heartbreaking.

Courtesy Ecco

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

All of Kelly Link’s work is in dialogue with the fairytale form, but the impact of Stranger Things Happen, when it first appeared, is impossible to estimate. Weird, wild, and subversive, the eleven short stories in Link’s first collection give us magic, but with a slyly modern take on the usual twin sisters, romances, and epic journeys into the unknown.

Courtesy Small Beer Press

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is, of course, permanently rooted to fairytales and myths, having made dozens of subversive forays into each. His Sandman series of graphic novels deal with elves, talking cats, and demons—but storybook The Sleeper and the Spindle is gentler stuff, complementing Gaiman’s unique take on Sleeping Beauty and Snow White with lovely full-page illustrations by Chris Riddell.

Courtesy HarperCollins

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