The best books for all ages that retell well-known stories and feature complex female characters

The Books I Picked & Why

The Sleeper and the Spindle

By Neil Gaiman, Chris Riddell

The Sleeper and the Spindle

Why this book?

I first read this book to my daughter when she was seven years old, and we’ve read it together multiple times since. I love Gaiman’s take on these two mashed-up classic fairy tales—not only does he allow a normally passive princess to be the hero and choose her own future, he completely subverts reader expectations about the outward appearance of good and evil. This was the first time my daughter had been confronted by this kind of subversion in a book, and it blew her mind in the best possible way.


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Zel

By Donna Jo Napoli

Zel

Why this book?

Napoli is a master at rewriting fairy tales and other classic stories, and Zel might just be my favorite of her works. A young adult retelling of Rapunzel from three perspectives, it sticks to the original tale’s basic plot points but deeply expands the reader’s understanding of each character, particularly Rapunzel’s mother, whose feelings and motivations are written with exquisite nuance. Though it’s written for a YA audience, I still enjoy this story as much now as I did when I first read it at age 13, and now that I’m a mother myself, I experience it on an entirely different level. This is a deceptively simple book that really has layers upon layers to unwrap. 


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Deerskin

By Robin McKinley

Deerskin

Why this book?

Fairy tales are often disturbing, and “Donkeyskin,” the Charles Perrault story upon which Robin McKinley based Deerskin, is no exception. And so, unlike many of McKinley’s novels—which retell fairy tales for a young adult audience—Deerskin is firmly an adult book. But though McKinley does not shy away from the dark themes in this story, which include incest, rape, miscarriage, and PTSD, she is respectful of them, and of the impact they have on Lissar, the story’s protagonist, and on the reader. Though this is often a difficult read, it’s also a hopeful one—a story not just of abuse, but of recovery, and proof that strength of character doesn’t always reveal itself through the swinging of swords or the slaying of dragons. 

(There’s also a sweet romance. Oh, and there are dogs. Lots and lots of dogs. And they are delightful).


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Circe

By Madeline Miller

Circe

Why this book?

The best retellings, in my opinion, reveal something new about the original story, and Circe is no exception. When I first read The Odyssey in college, I’m embarrassed to say that despite finding Odysseus’s braggadocio more than a little off-putting, I didn’t question his version of events as closely as I could have. Because of course, as Madeleine Miller has it, Circe didn’t randomly turn Odysseus’s men into pigs. People—even goddesses—don’t generally do things without reason. The men did something to her first. The entire book is a study in complexity, from the deep-dive we take into Circe’s background, motivations, thoughts, and feelings, to the complicated relationships between the gods, mortals, and time itself. 


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Courting Mr. Lincoln

By Louis Bayard

Courting Mr. Lincoln

Why this book?

The other books in this list are all retellings of well-known fairy tales and myths, and though Courting Mr. Lincoln is a fictionalized version of a real man’s life, I would argue that Abraham Lincoln has achieved a sort of mythic status. Louis Bayard has created a gorgeous story about Lincoln told from the perspectives of two people who loved him: his wife, Mary—rendered here with tightly-drawn nuance—and his roommate, Joshua Speed.

Previously, I’d mostly seen Mary Todd Lincoln portrayed as a mother consumed by her grief. Bayard’s Mary is sharply intelligent, independent, and imperfect—she can be as cruel as she can be kind. Few books have stuck with me as completely as this one; with writing that is both lyrical and somehow raw, it brilliantly depicts relationships in all their messy, enduring, heart-breaking intricacy. 


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