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Fairy tales, old and new

The books recommended below were all published within the last several years and reviewed by The Horn Book Magazine. Grade levels are only suggestions; the individual child is the real criterion.

Picture books

Suggested grade level listed with each entry

The Goldilocks Variations written by Allan Ahlberg, illus. by Jessica Ahlberg (Candlewick)
Six tongue-in-cheek variants progress from simple changes in the canonical tale to a version with thirty-three bears. The verbal wit, the delicately limned pen and watercolor art, and clever touches of paper engineering add up to a barrel of fun. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

The Snow Queen written by Hans Christian Andersen, adapted by Naomi Lewis, illus. by Christian Birmingham (Candlewick)
(2) Andersen’s novella-length masterpiece is accompanied by a generous number of illustrations. Though the pages are a bit text-heavy, Birmingham’s pastels are wonderfully inviting as they celebrate the loveliness of Andersen’s language and imagery. Grade level: K–3. 64 pages.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier written by Hans Christian Andersen, retold by Cynthia Rylant, illus. by Jen Corace
While faithfully tracing most of the canonical story, Ryland changes its slant — and its outcome, which may suit those who find the Dane’s bittersweet ending hard to bear. Mixed-media art reveals many intriguing details, especially of toys in a well-filled nursery. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

The Girl in Red written by Aaron Frisch, story by and illus. by Roberto Innocenti (Creative Editions)
Little Red travels a ‘hood of a different color in this gritty adaptation. The story begins in a crumbling housing project; on the way to Nana’s trailer, Red meets a motorcycle-riding “wolf”. Terse narrative and dark illustrations set a menacing scene. Grade level: 4–6. 32 pages.

What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf? by Debi Gliori (Bloomsbury)
Mr. Wolf thinks everyone’s forgotten his birthday. Humorously detailed illustrations reveal the many nursery-rhyme and fairy-tale characters populating Mr. Wolf’s world. Readers will enjoy the surprise celebration along with Mr. Wolf. Grade level: PS. 32 pages.

Princess Hyacinth (the Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) written by Florence Parry Heide, illus. by Lane Smith (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
In this frothy book, a princess takes flight if not weighed down. One day she accidentally floats up into the sky — then happily determines to head skyward every day. Heide’s voice is confident and sure, Smith’s mixed-media illustrations understated yet witty. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

The Girl of the Wish Garden: A Thumbelina Story written by Uma Krishnaswami, illus. by Nasrin Khosravi (Groundwood)
Krishnaswami uses as “primary source material” renowned Iranian artist Khosravi’s illustrations, which originally appeared in a 1999 Farsi edition of “Thumbelina.” The acrylic and tissue paintings brim with allusive imagery in a luminous palette. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Who Pushed Humpty Dumpty? And Other Notorious Nursery Tale Mysteries written by David Levinthal, illus. by John Nickle (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
Officer Binky, a laconic and rumpled frog detective, investigates the events of fairyland: “The Three Bears” is a breaking and entering; “Snow White” is an attempted murder; Hansel and Gretel present a self-defense plea. Grade level: K–3. 40 pages.

No Bears written by Meg McKinlay, illus. by Leila Rudge (Candlewick)
Ella proclaims that this book will have a princess (herself) and a monster but no bears. Readers will see that there is a bear in the book they’re reading, one who rescues the princess from the monster. Droll pictures — and many fairy-tale details to discover — draw readers in. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Puss in Boots by Jerry Pinkney (Dial)
Sumptuous illustrations place realistic natural elements side by side with ostentatious embellishments in the eighteenth-century clothing of the human characters. Aside from switching the story’s usual ogre into a sorcerer, Pinkney sticks close to the source. Grade level: K–3. 40 pages.

Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf written by Judy Sierra, illus. by J. Otto Seibold (Knopf)
B.B. Wolf (Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf) tries to tell his version of “The Three Little Pigs,” in which he was just blowing on a dandelion puff. Unfortunately for B.B., the other nursery tale characters aren’t buying it. Stylish illustrations and multiple puns make this new spin unique. Grade level: K–3. 40 pages.

The King Who Wouldn’t Sleep written by Debbie Singleton, illus. by Holly Swain (Andersen)
Determined to find the perfect prince for his daughter, a king never sleeps. A comical procession of princes is interviewed; each unsuccessfully tries to lull the king into sleep so he can speak directly to the princess. This new and funny story uses a traditional fairy-tale structure. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Three calculating dinosaurs plan to lure Goldilocks into their home, then enjoy a snack of “chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbons.” But the over-eager dinosaurs give themselves away, allowing Goldilocks to hastily retreat. The meta elements fly fast and furious in this zany tale. Grade level: K–3. 40 pages.


Suggested grade level for all entries: 4–6

Giants Beware! by Jorge Aguirre, illus. by Rafael Rosado, color by John Novak and Matthew Schenk (Roaring Brook/First Second)
This graphic novel mixes appealing fairy-tale plots with unconventional solutions. Tiny but tough Claudette sets out to kill the rumored local giant. While her quest is straightforward, the lessons learned along the way are suitably complex for older-elementary kids. 204 pages.

Definitely Not for Little Ones: Some Very Grimm Fairy-Tale Comics by Rotraut Susanne Berner, trans. by Shelley Tanaka (Groundwood)
Berner presents eight cartoon-strip versions of Grimm stories. Straightforward, pared-down translations with mild demotic touches are accompanied by sometimes cheeky drawings of a folktale world featuring wishing wells and wolves and hedgehogs playing bagpipes. 48 pages.

A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton)
Several Grimms’ tales are woven into one darkly humorous story. The combination of powerful stories and grade-school humor may do for the popularity of Grimm fairy tales what the Percy Jackson books did for Greek mythology. Also recommended: sequel In a Glass Grimmly.  251 pages.

Rapunzel’s Revenge written by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illus. by Nathan Hale (Bloomsbury)
In this graphic novel, Rapunzel’s a hair-whip-toting cowgirl. She joins with stolen-goose rapscallion Jack to rescue her mother and end her wicked stepmother’s reign. The gutsy tale is particularly well suited to its format, with illustrations mixing the familiar and offbeat. 144 pages.

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom written by Christopher Healy, illus. by Todd Harris (HarperCollins/Walden Pond)
Four Prince Charmings discover that evils are afoot in the woods. Witty banter, cartoony illustrations, and nonstop action help make this fairy-tale mash-up highly entertaining. Also recommended: sequel The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle. 438 pages.

Breadcrumbs written by Anne Ursu, illus. by Erin McGuire (HarperCollins/Walden Pond)
In this riff on The Snow Queen, Hazel’s friend Jack disappears. But fantasy-reading Hazel knows a fairy tale when she sees one: she heads into the woods and successfully negotiates the duplicitous characters she meets. Ursu’s prose is pungent, humorous, and vivid. 312 pages.


Suggested grade level for all entries: 7 and up

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce (Scholastic/Levine)
In this innovative interpretation of Rumpelstiltskin, Charlotte and her sister are struggling to keep the family mill solvent when a stranger with the ability to spin straw into gold appears. The pastoral fairy-tale setting gains traction in the gritty details of small-town life. 395 pages.

Bewitching by Alex Flinn (HarperTeen)
Flinn transposes four fairy tales into believable new frameworks; most compelling is the story about Emma and her stepfather’s daughter. Flinn skillfully keeps sympathy with Emma, making readers cheer for her, not Cinderella stand-in Lisette, to rock the ball and get the guy. 342 pages.

A Kiss in Time by Alex Flinn (HarperTeen)
In this frothy, fun-filled update of “Sleeping Beauty,” Princess Talia is awakened by Jack, a modern-day Florida teen — then demands he take her home with him. Flinn builds a credible romance around two vastly different (and highly entertaining) characters. 371 pages.

Towering by Alex Flinn (HarperTeen)
In this dark take on “Rapunzel”, Rachel, who has spent most of her life trapped in a tower, climbs down a rope made from her hair to rescue Wyatt from drowning. Her bond with Wyatt ultimately gives Rachel the strength to fulfill her destiny. 296 pages.

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan (Knopf)
Magically, a bitter ostracized seal-kin girl calls up beautiful selkie women to entice the men of Rollrock Island, whose human wives eventually abandon the island. The world is busily, passionately alive in this blend of folktale and invented regionality. 309 pages.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (Knopf)
After escaping from horrifying abuse, Liga raises her daughters, Branza and Urdda, in a parallel world without aggression or fear. When strangers pique Urdda’s curiosity, she finds her way to the real world. Lyrical narrative and mythic imagery lend a fairy-tale atmosphere. 435 pages.

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal (Knopf)
Lonely Jeremy has the rare ability to hear ghosts; that’s how Jacob Grimm, the story’s narrator, becomes Jeremy’s mentor and guardian. When Jeremy and his crush Ginger encounter the malevolent “Finder of Occasions,” the buoyant story takes on a shiver of horror as dark as any of the Grimms’ tales. Grade level: 7 and up. 373 pages.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer [Lunar Chronicles] (Feiwel)
With no memory of her life before becoming a cyborg, teenage Linh Cinder is forced to earn the family’s living as a mechanic. Meyer ingeniously incorporates key elements of the fairy tale into this sci-fi Cinderella story. Also recommended: sequel Scarlet. 390 pages.

The Wager by Donna Jo Napoli (Holt)
Three years, three months, three days: that’s how long playboy Don Giovanni agrees to forgo bathing, in his pact with the devil. Napoli sets her story in twelfth-century Sicily; against the backdrop of natural disasters, Don Giovanni’s personal disasters grow intriguingly complex. 263 pages.

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman (Putnam)
Elizabeth works as a page at the New-York Circulating Material Repository. Housed in the basement is the Grimm Collection, an assortment of fairy-tale items (e.g., seven-league boots, spinning wheels), and someone’s been replacing the materials with nonmagical replicas. 327 pages.

Impossible by Nancy Werlin (Dial)
A curse renders Lucy pregnant and destined for insanity unless she completes three “impossible” tasks. The conceit of a modern-day high schooler with a fairy-tale conundrum is delicious; Lucy uses Google and eBay, along with old-fashioned true love, to break the curse. 376 pages.

Curse of the Thirteenth Fey: The True Tale of Sleeping Beauty by Jane Yolen (Philomel)
For generations Gorse’s faerie family has been unable to refuse any of the king’s Bidding. But on the way to deliver a christening gift (a spindle) to the newborn princess, Gorse is held captive. Yolen brings a master’s confidence to this re-envisioning of “Sleeping Beauty.” 290 pages.

Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen (Philomel)
This “Snow White” retelling is set in Depression-era West Virginia. There’s a calculating Stepmama and a magic mirror; the magic is tilted toward Pentecostal snake handling. The details of Appalachia are so authentic that this branches out into its own American inflorescence. 243 pages.


Suggested grade level listed with each entry

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses written by Ron Koertge, illus. by Andrea Dezsö (Candlewick)
Koertge retells, in free verse and from various points of view, twenty-three familiar tales. It’s a swell mix of the comical, concrete, and macabre. Dezsö’s choice of cut-paper illustrations is brilliant, a nod to Hans C. Andersen’s skill in that medium. Grade level: 7 and up. 88 pages.

Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems written by Marilyn Singer; illus. by Josée Masse (Dial)
These poems subvert traditional tales by offering two points of view: what goes down on the left-hand of the page goes up on the right, with line breaks and punctuation revised for strategic effect. The poems require (and reward) close attention. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse written by Marilyn Singer; illustrated by Josée Masse (Dutton)
Through a verse form she dubs the reverso, Singer mediates on familiar fairy tales and their shadows. The second stanza of each free-verse poem is the first reversed, providing an alternate perspective. Similarly bifurcated illustrations face the poems. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Grumbles from the Forest: Fairy-Tale Voices with a Twist by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Kai Dotlich; illus. by Matt Mahurin (Wordsong/Boyds Mills)
Each of fifteen fairy tales is distilled into two short poems, one by each co-author. The perspectives are often those of characters — or inanimate objects — not usually heard from in the traditional tales. Painterly illustrations echo each piece’s tone. Grade level: K–3. 40 pages.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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