9 Short Fairy Tale Retelling Novels for YA and MG Audiences

I love to get pulled into a hefty novel, knowing (or at least hoping) that with a high page count, the author will have given the story the thorough treatment it deserves. But sometimes I just need something short and sweet, something I can read in one night. I also love fairy take retellings. This list combines both of those things, for better or worse.

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THE STORYTELLER’S DAUGHTER – A retelling of the novel The One Thousand and One Nights, also known as The Arabian Nights. This one predates Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger, two much more popular retellings of the same novel. It’s a story of the dark places our hearts go to when we’re hurt, redemption, forgiveness, and agency. It should be said that the novel touches on all of these things fairly lightly – it certainly doesn’t offer a Pulitzer-worthy exploration of them. What I also think is important is that the story does not exploit the heroine by making her marry a tyrant and then glorifying that union, as the original tale does. The characters are satisfyingly human.

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SLEEPING BEAUTY’S DAUGHTERS – A retelling of “Sleeping Beauty.” Actually it’s more of a spin-off/sequel. It centers on, of course, Sleeping Beauty’s daughters, but the curse only falls on one of them. This book details their journey through strange places to overcome the curse, with the help of a friend/love interest. Overall, a cute journey story with unique setting elements.

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THE WILD ORCHID – A retelling of “The Ballad of Mulan.” Personally, I found this one lacking, but it does have pretty big shoes to fill, given that Disney’s Mulan is so wonderful. While reading this novel, I got the sense that I was supposed to feel a lot more emotionally invested than I actually was. None of the characters were well-developed enough individually, and their relationships with each other were even less so. In terms of war action, everything felt pretty vanilla and anti-climactic. It might tide you over until the release of Disney’s live-action Mulan in 2020, but I would recommend just rewatching animated Mulan instead.

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THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS – A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” A guy “saves” the day in the original fairy tale. But the youngest sister, who has being excluded from everything her sisters do at her father’s behest, must save her elder sisters from a sinister spell, with help from a few quirky figures. The story unfolds like a charming Regency-era romance.

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SUNLIGHT AND SHADOW – A retelling of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Although the opera itself is actually pretty sexist, I didn’t really notice any of those problems in this novel. It helps that the heroine’s mother, usually portrayed as villainous in the opera, and the heroine’s father, usually portrayed as the righteous one, were placed on equal ground — both concerned but misguided parents. Also, the hero is not a traditional macho man and is happy with who he is. (Hint: we need more heroes like that). But despite this and a gorgeous worldbuilding idea — a kingdom of night and stars and darkness versus a kingdom of sun and light — the novel was pretty unremarkable. It felt rushed, overpopulated, and underdeveloped.

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THE WORLD ABOVE – A retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” with a dash of the Robin Hood legend. This is my personal favorite from this list. It follows Jack, yes, but mostly his twin sister, Gen, and their adventures in the kingdom in the sky. I guess I was won over by the sweet romance between Gen and Robin, and also by the group friendship — Gen, Jack, the giant brother and sister they meet in the sky kingdom, Robin and his “merry men.” I kind of love those everything-but-the-kitchen sink fairy tale mashups. It’s a fun madcap story that blends plots and adds original elements, as well.

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WINTER’S CHILD – A retelling of “The Snow Queen.” This one is a bit problematic. It shames the heroine for rejecting the hero’s marriage proposal in the beginning, even though the shaming was framed as being about how she rejected him. Spoiler alert: they both end up with different people anyway, so I guess she made the right call. Overall, the story is pretty convoluted; it seems like the author was unsure of what she wanted it to say. Too bad, because the introductory chapter was interesting and did something I had never seen before but still felt like a timeless fairy tale.

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WATER SONG – A retelling of “The Frog Prince.” It is set in Europe during World War I, but the “frog prince” in question is from the bayous of the southern U.S. and the story incorporates a bit of bayou magic. The romance develops much like it does in the original fairy tale, with the hero being interested and the heroine being much less so. The difference is that the hero in this story is flirty but not pushy, and the heroine is not as spoiled — she actually contributes to the war effort while trying to nurse the hero back to health. Romance blooms slowly from an initially awkward friendship. The novel is a pretty cool blend of historical fiction and folklore.

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PRINCESS OF THE WILD SWANS – A retelling of “The Wild Swans,” in which the king’s sons are transformed into swans by his new wife, and only the king’s daughter can save them by taking on seemingly impossible tasks. But even this fairy tale is based on ancient Irish legend called “The Children of Lir.” I appreciate that the author kept the Irish flavor going in this novel. The novel may be short, but it actually feels longer — in a good way, like it has more substance.

So that’s it. That’s my list for now. Are there any you think I’ve missed? Let me know!

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