Wednesday 26 September 2012

"Real life isn't always pretty, so why should fairy tales be?"

The Brothers Grimm provided the first collection of fairy tales when they travelled around Germany studying linguistics. As part of their study they collected up the local folk tales told by elders in these regions and wrote them down. Most of these tales tended to be gruesome and violent, with strong sexual undertones and often included dark themes. To make them more acceptable to society and in conform with some of society’s morals the brothers made some alterations to the stories before publishing them as the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales –  in fact, between 1812 and 1857 their first collection was revised and published many times, and grew from 86 stories to more than 200. But even the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales were rather different to the more familiar versions read to children today. For example, in Grimms Cinderella, her father was alive during the story, her step-sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit the glass shoe and they were eventually punished by having their eyes pecked out and the eyeballs given to Cinderella as a wedding present.(For more info go here or here!

Since the publication of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales adaptations have abounded, and as fairy tales became a staple for the nursery the stories were often simplified, the violence watered-down, the good rewarded and the bad punished (through consequences of their own actions.) With the most famous adaptations by Walt Disney, fairy tales became equated to happy endings and a somewhat innoncent, wholesome outlook. Now, with young adult novels becoming more and more popular it seems to me quite natural that these original stories are returning to their darker roots for a more mature audience, and are once again being readapted to handle complex themes and trickier shades of grey in the human experience. As author Sally Poyton eloquently puts it, ‘Fairy tales are by nature ever changing… They are survivors, evolving to suit society’s needs, settling into whichever niche they find.’ And it looks like right now they’ve found YA, where stories like A.G. Howard’s SPLINTERED, are evolving the landscapes of classic tales to reach out to an older audience.

I asked A.G. Howard, whose debut novel Splintered is a dark twist on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, why she thought fairy tale spin offs were so popular right now in YA.

Why do you think these dark fairy tale revisitings are so appealing to young adults?

I think, for one, because dark fairy tales provide a perfect archetype for coming-of-age elements. First, there’s a young heroine (in some cases, hero, but for my answer, we’ll stick with the female lead character) —either troubled, or spoiled like a princess — who needs a quest so she can find her place in the world, become strong enough to face her troubles, and leave the diva days behind. Then there's the hero (prince), or in some cases, anti-heroes, who will accompany/guide/confuse our heroine on her journey to self-realization. Fairy tales often teach life lessons in subtle ways, and when drenched in darkness, the lessons become even less obvious, but leave more of a visceral imprint.

And let’s not discount the adventure aspect. Fairy tales take place either in a far off land or an alternate earth—and offer an eccentric bevy of secondary characters who help or hinder along the way—which provides the temporary escapism we all need from the very real monsters of everyday life.

The original Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales published in 1812 (under the original title 'Children's and Household Tales'), and which inspired later writers likes Hans Christian Anderson, were bloody, twisted and gory. Do you think there’s a relationship between the original tone of these fairy tales and the darker themes appearing in YA fairy tale spin offs now?

Sure. Our generation is hyper-aware of violence and tragedy due to disturbing images of terrorism, war scenes, and random shootings, etc… touted by the media day in and day out. So it stands to reason that we’d be drawn to The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Anderson versions, which both cater to the idea that “real life isn’t always pretty, so why should fairy tales be?” I also think the dystopian craze and apocalyptic mindset have contributed, as well.

Do you have a favorite dark YA novel based on a fairy tale you could tell us about?

I recently read the modernized adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Beastly, by Alex Flinn  and enjoyed it (it was definitely better than the Beastly movie version). Still, I haven’t read enough dark fairy tale adaptations yet to determine if it will become a favorite. I have a long list that I still want to read, including:

·      Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley 
·      Cinder by Marissa Meyer 
·      The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale 

Why do you think readers are so intrigued by these stories that are familiar, yet different?

I think dark fairy tales are universally relatable because, like the world itself, they’re twisted and terrifying at some turns, poignant and amusing at others — a charming and alarming tangle of emotions that anyone can relate to and appreciate. Happily ever after is nice, but it can taint our everyday lives with unrealistic expectations. Sometimes we just want to see someone claw their way out of an even darker place than we might be in … proof that there’s hope, if not for a happily ever after, a satisfactory ever after, for us all.

Many thanks to A.G. Howard for returning to Demention and talking YA fairy tales with us! What do you think makes a great YA fairy tale adaptation? Do you think the darker elements entering YA fairy tale spin offs are a natural evolution for a more mature audience, or a sign of the times?


  1. Hi Claire, great article! For me the darker elements of Fairy Tales, and their confidence to tackle difficult often taboo subject makes them ripe for YA. The best fairy tale YA looks back to these qualities. My fairy tale novel which is somewhere between middle-grade and YA is 'The Book of Lost Things' by John Connolly. If you've not read it, i urge you too track a copy down!

  2. Thanks, Sally! I loved reading all your posts on Fairy Tales, and I agree, FTs are perfect material for YA. I'll see if I can get my hands on a copy of The Book of Lost Things, sounds excellent. And thanks for stopping by Demention!

  3. Claire, thanks again for having me over! :) And Sally, that book sounds amazing. Needs to go on my TBR shelf pronto!

  4. Do you possibly mean Lewis Carroll as the author for 'Alice in Wonderland'?
    An interesting post... even as a child I found fairy tales a little disturbing. There's something dark lying just underneath the surface. I can't say I hate fairy tales that end on a more hopeful note (probably not as hopeful and idealistic as a Disney movie) or perhaps hint that despite it all, the hero will keep fighting.
    I really enjoy this blog. Thanks for posting.

  5. Ooh Christy, thanks for pointing out my slip -- will get it corrected! And personally I love 'happy endings'. I'm an optimist but I also think it's interesting that an older audience with some experience of the 'grey area' where people aren't simply good or bad, right or wrong, is drawn to the more complex and difficult themes that some of these YA fairy tale spin offs raise, (drawing back to their roots). Thanks for commenting and taking the time to read!