I had a great time last week visiting Twinsburg, Ohio to give a talk called “Fairy Tales for the Readers’ Advisor.” The topic was chosen because fairy tales seem to have a new following, perked up by a number of new film adaptations for adult audiences and television shows like Once upon a Time and Grimm. But does the trend extend to books? I love to promote fantasy fiction, so even though I’m more of an epic fantasy guy, I was curious to delve into the subject.
Fairy tales are tricky from an advisory point of view. They’re certainly a subset of fantasy fiction, but stylistically, they’re different than the books that are most popular among adult fantasy readers. Modern fantasy tends to long books and series, not short tales that use lyrical, allegorical language. Fairy tales most often have pastoral settings, but urban fantasy’s all the rage. So while they share story elements and of course magic with the main stream of fantasy fiction, they might appeal most to other audiences.
I should also note a distinction between novels about the world of faerie and fairy tales. While they share common elements, they aren’t exactly the same thing. Books about the world of faerie also use a longer format and deal with a particular kind of story: what happens when humans come into contact with the tricksy world of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Try Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, or Susanna Carroll’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell for examples.
Fairy tale lovers might start in the young adult section, where many authors have found success with retellings. Start with Robin McKinley, Donna Jo Napoli, Shannon Hale, and Cameron Dokey, for instance. In the adult section, Patricia McKillip writes with a style that recalls fairy tales, and Juliet Marillier begins most of her series with a fairy tale re-telling. Favorite authors like Neil Gaiman, Peter S. Beagle, Mercedes Lackey, and Charles de Lint often make connections to fairy tales and myths. The anthologies of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have explored fairy tales extensively.
Some new books would make excellent starting pointsfor fairy tale fans. Consider Philip Pullman’s new translation of the Grimm Tales, in which he draws all of his source material from the brothers’ versions (the Grimms published at least seven versions of their main book of fairy tales, editing them in a way that made them increasingly appropriate for children between 1812 and 1858). Pullman chose fifty of his favorite tales to translate, in many cases bringing them back toward their earlier, well, grimmer beginnings. The volume has received good reviews in England, and is newly available in the United States.
Two anthologies of new fairy tales, inspired by classics, are of interest. The Kate Bernheimer-edited My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me has the catchier title, but John Klima’s Happily Ever After is also good. Both books collect stories from a mix of fantasy and literary fiction superstars and lesser known writers like Kelly Link, Theodora Goss, and Bernheimer herself, whose works have always teased at the boundaries of fairy tale.
Fairy tale adaptations might prove fruitful future ground for writers of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, subgenres whose writers might benefit from a variation from the likes of vampires and werewolves. K. W. Jeter, a strong writer who has never found a big audience, has a new series called Grimm City co-written with Gareth Jefferson Jones that brings many fairy tale characters to a dark urban setting starting with the first book Death’s Apprentice.
Whether your group’s preference is for revisiting the tales of Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, the Grimms or others or exploring modern re-tellings, you’ll find this topic a good choice for an upcoming meeting. The nostalgia and common reference point of these tales give them a rare place in almost every reader’s history: stories that we share, embedded so deeply in us that we can’t even remember when we first encountered them. That’s exciting territory, an interior country ripe for re-discovery.