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Once Upon A Time…A List of Must Read Fairy Tales

By Julie Bond

As with many traditional fairy tales whose authors are obscure or origins are unknown, so it is with the creation of “National Tell a Fairy Tale Day” and its observation on February 26 each year. Everyone is encouraged to celebrate by reading, telling, or listening to fairy tales. Those of us who are true fans of fairy tales often feel that the genre was done a disservice by the folks at Disney who sanitized and sterilized these ancient tales, adding in syrupy songs and talking anthropomorphic animals, along with the ubiquitous “happily ever after.” We are the purists who enjoy the macabre and deeply disturbing tales from the brothers Grimm, fables handed down generation after generation as a way to teach children important societal lessons. These fairy tales are most certainly not for children, nor are they for the faint of heart or easily disturbed. There are many contemporary authors who are revisiting fairy tales by providing a new spin on well-known stories. Others are celebrating the genre by creating new stories which capture the dark, cautionary flavor and charm of those classics.

My love of fairy tales, old and new, is limitless. With this list of just 15 favorites, I have tried to provide a cross-section of the amazing choices out there for adults who love fairy tales. It is by no means exhaustive, and I look forward to your suggestions for my TBR pile. So, without further ado…

Once Upon A Time…My List of Must Read Fairy Tales:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern1. “The Night Circus,” by Erin Morgenstern. This dark, compelling read focuses on a circus that suddenly appears at night, and disappears just as quickly. Full of magic and mystery, this is the perfect choice if you loved “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” And, really…who didn’t enjoy that masterpiece?

Splintered & Roseblood by A.G. Howard2. The “Splintered” series by A.G. Howard is YA for mature audiences due to the imagery, themes, and violence. It is a modern retelling of “Alice In Wonderland” featuring the direct descendant of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll. The author followed up this series with another seductive novel, “Roseblood,” which is a modern spin on “Phantom of the Opera.” Not many people have read this author. Do yourself a favor. Read her novels now.

Practical Magic & The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman3 & 4. Alice Hoffman has written several books which classify as fairy tales given her love of magic, mystery, and the unknown. My favorite by far is still “Practical Magic,” a tale of strong, independent women, sisters who, generation after generation, are gifted and cursed in life and love until one love breaks the curse. The movie version was okay. The book is pure magic. “The Probable Future” is another beautiful fairy tale from Hoffman. Again, the story centers around a family of extraordinary women, the Sparrows, with special gifts that come to fruition when they turn thirteen. Newly minted teen, Stella, has the ability to see how other people die and this “gift” seems more like a curse. As with “Practical Magic” this novel is about family, and the bonds that give us strength even as they test our fortitude.

Neverwhere & The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman5 & 6.There is no way anyone could put together a list of fairy tales for adults without including Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is the master of this genre and you really can’t go wrong with any of his books.  Just trying to choose two for this list was a challenge!  However, I think I will go with “Neverwhere,” a tale of a man whose life is completely uprooted when he helps an injured girl on a London street. Next thing he knows, he’s living in an alternate reality where the girl whose life he saved is actually a powerful figure surrounded by mystery. Another Gaiman favorite is “The Sleeper and the Spindle.” This one has amazing metallic artwork courtesy of frequent collaborator, Chris Riddell, and is a really captivating picture book combining the stories of a Snow White-like character and a Sleeping Beauty. There may be dwarfs and a princess who needs rescuing, but this is definitely not the fairy tale you are thinking of. Brilliant.  This one sits on my coffee table and is irresistible.

Hunted by Meagan Spooner7. Meagan Spooner’s, “Hunted” is a powerful retelling of the classic “Beauty and the Beast” story. This time around, our heroine is more independent, sure-footed, and cunning. No talking teapots in this dark tale.

Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige8. Danielle Paige has tackled the re-telling of more than one classic fairy tale. My favorite, however, is the “Stealing Snow” series. Snow has been in an insane asylum for years only to discover she isn’t crazy, she really can harness the power of snow. Is she a hero or a villain, or a little of both?

The Fairest of Them All by Carolyn Turgeon9. Carolyn Turgeon’s “The Fairest Of Them All” weaves together the stories of Rapunzel and Snow White with dark imagery reminiscent of the original Grimm’s fairy tales. This is the perfect choice for a fairy tale purest.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden10. “The Bear and the Nightingale,” by Katherine Arden is the first book in the Winternight Trilogy. You may, at first, think that this is just a Cinderella spin-off set in the Russian wilderness, however, it is so much more. This is folk magic and spirits and a young woman who defies her elders, and forges her own path unconstrained by societal norms, refusing to be bound by expectations.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle11. “The Changeling,” by Victor LaValle is incredibly disturbing, and not for every reader. Apollo has lost his father and begins to explore his loss more deeply as he becomes a father himself. Plagued by recurring dreams and a sense of foreboding, his wife and child disappear. Full of mystery, angst, obsession and secrets, this re-telling is more of a dark odyssey.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly12. John Connolly’s “The Book of Lost Things” is considered YA as it features a twelve year old male protagonist, but definitely reads like a sophisticated adult novel. At the core of this novel is a young boy, wracked with grief after his mother dies, who loses himself in the books around him. However, as the line between fantasy and reality blurs, this becomes a stark tale of innocence lost.

Mirror MIrror by Gregory Maguire13. Gregory Maguire is another prolific writer in the genre having penned the amazingly successful “Wicked” series. While I enjoyed that series, I found “Mirror Mirror” to be even more inspired and deliciously entertaining. By setting the tale of Snow White in Renaissance Italy, Maguire is able to deftly place Lucrezia Borgia as the evil queen. Need I say more?

hile Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell14. Elizabeth Blackwell’s “While Beauty Slept” is a story within a story, recounting the tale of the real sleeping princess’ companion who has tried to remain anonymous, to protect herself and the real story of what happened and the evil that still threatens.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter15. And, finally, if you are looking for a collection of fairy tales, look no further than Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.” I love the 75th Anniversary edition, in particular. If you don’t know who Carter was, you are in for a treat, as she inspired the likes of Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling. She literally was a defining voice in supernatural fiction and her takes on “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Beauty and the Beast” are so dark and gothic, full of mystery and sensual elements, while still having a feminist voice. She was definitely ahead of her time.

Julie Bond

Julie Bond is a voracious reader with eclectic tastes running the gamut from YA lit, to psychological suspense, and anything dog-related, of course. You can find her haunting her favorite San Francisco Bay Area indie bookstores. Email her at ObsessiveBookFanatic@gmail.com

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