We are entering a golden age of feminist retellings, according to some publishers, who argue that in a socially and politically charged era where women’s stories are being brought to the fore, there is a growing appetite among readers for feminist fairytales.
For Usborne, sales of fairytales are "booming". In 2018 its various retellings including its Peep Inside a Fairy Tale series sold 53,000 copies, for £425,000, in the UK through Nielsen Bookscan. Usborne staff writer Lesley Sims has been working on a new book for this autumn: Forgotten Fairytales of Brave and Brilliant Girls (publishing in September), which will consist of eight tales featuring an "adventurous, intelligent and daring female protagonist". The stories, which are traditional fairytales from across Northern Europe, include a sleeping prince rescued by a princess, sisters who fight a goblin to rescue a bear, and a young girl who outwits a giant to save her family.
Sims says that the publisher’s work excavating these "forgotten" narratives highlights shifting attitudes towards the role of women and the importance of their stories. "The reasons for these stories being forgotten (at least by popular culture) and for them coming back into the mainstream surely tells us a great deal about changing attitudes to women and their role in society," says Sims. "Gender issues are always hugely complex and connected to political, social and economic factors. As a specialist children’s book publisher, we know that the stories that we grow up with are vitally important in shaping who we are as adults. We have been changing fairytale endings for some time now, and drawn a line firmly under princesses (or any other girls) being kissed by strange men while they sleep, or agreeing to marry men they met five minutes ago. So perhaps we’ve even played a subtle part in creating the current political climate."
Lauren Fortune, editor of Louise O’Neill’s feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid entitled The Surface Breaks (Scholastic), says that the #MeToo campaign has "given women a public voice and shone a light on the oppressive treatment and historical silencing of women by the patriarchy... Reworking familiar stories and fairytales to reflect this progress feels very timely, and overdue."
According to Ebury editorial director Emma Smith, authors are currently "breathing new life into unduly forgotten characters, finding cracks to open up in legends and creating new fairytales for generations to come". Citing Women’s Prize longlistees Madeline Miller’s Circe (Bloomsbury) and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton), Smith says: "There is something very powerful about a modern writer finding the relevance and magic that will chime with audiences today, provoking readers to challenge their own preconceptions as well as open up new interpretations."
One example of this is Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill, which Smith signed while at Trapeze. The title has sold 6,540 copies for £72,594, according to Nielsen BookScan. Smith has commissioned a new book from Gill for Ebury, Great Goddesses, which will be published in September. The title is a collection of feminist retellings of the great mythical goddesses, including Medusa, Circe and Athena.
Venetia Gosling, publisher at Macmillan’s Children’s Books, suggests that the trend of feminist retellings in children’s fiction could be an extension of the success of titles such as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Particular Books) and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World (Bloomsbury). She says: "Fairytales are so iconic, and form such a framework for so much of our fiction, that it is definitely time to address these stories and give them a feminist spin. We want our children to grow up reading about women who rise above the stereotype, stretching and shaping what it means to be a woman today."
A Western focus
Publishers think the trend will develop internationally, too. Fortune says: "So far, we have mostly seen feminist reinterpretations of Western fairytales—those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen—and it would be great to see fairytales from other countries and cultures given a modern, feminist spin."
Gráinne Clear, publishing manager at Little Island— which released Deirdre Sullivan and illustrator Karen Vaughan’s fairytale retelling Tangleweed and Brine—agrees: "I expect we’ll also see other marginalised perspectives being brought forward in retellings—whether of race, class, gender or sexuality. Fairytales are such a perfect
way to make us reassess what we read and what we take for granted, because they are stories we know so well, and there are so many different layers of outdated cultural norms to be exposed in these classic tales."
Usborne will be following up Forgotten Fairytales of Brave and Brilliant Girls with Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls from Around the World. Sims says: "The tales in [this] book are simply fantastic stories, with the added benefit that they will hopefully enable children to read about more diverse characters and see themselves represented in the fairytales they read."