Love, Identity, Transformation: Why I Love Retellings

Below is a copy of my guest post, which went up today on Andi’s book reviews. Visit her blog for an excerpt and more info, too.

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Like many children, I grew up on fairy tales. My sisters and I wore out our “The Little Mermaid” picture book long before Disney offered its rendition. My mom, younger sister, and I all sniffled together when we finished “The Little Match Girl.” And my older sister, with a slight inclination toward the macabre, recited for me “Bluebeard” and the “real” “Cinderella” (in which the stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet). She is the one who introduced me to “Rumpelstiltskin” by acting it out in our basement playroom with Fischer Price Little People. The story captivated me so much that I would eventually go on to spend three years on my own rendition of it (Rumpled).

My inclination toward retellings started young. My older sister and I had a “writing club” which consisted of us sitting at a card table in the basement writing and illustrating stories. When I finished one, she accused it of being too close to the plot of “The Little Mermaid” (the original). She then informed me that plagiarism was against the law. Too bad I didn’t yet understand the public domain!

I read my first retellings when I was about 14, and I started with Arthurian legends. By happenstance, I started to notice that the same characters showed up in different books by different authors. The unexpected familiarity of it delighted me, as if I were meeting old friends when I entered a book rather than needing to form attachments to brand new characters. I also loved discovering what each author’s “take” on the story was: what was happening behind and between the scenes that formed the pillars of the original plot?

I didn’t attempt to write my own retellings until after I’d been reading them for about fifteen years. During that time, I was absorbing what made the best retellings: unique “angles”—something unexpected in a story the reader thinks she already knows, something that will never let the reader look at a story quite the same way again, something that makes sense of the strange turns of events in myths and fairy tales—which are, in themselves, meant to make sense of the strange turn of events of life.

I no longer worry about not being “original” enough, because now I realize that all writing really IS telling the same stories over and over again—the stories that matter most to us as human beings. Every story I’ve ever written is about transformation, about a soul on a journey to find love and identity. Every story is about someone who, after encountering certain experiences, can never be the same again.

Fairy tales hint at all the mysteries of the universe; they convey messages about the times in which they were written even as they impart themes that remain universal. By retelling these stories, we join a long and honorable tradition of keeping alive the secrets of life: love, identity, and transformation.