Bookworm’s Nest: Betsy Cornwell’s Favorite Fairy Tale Retellings

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Author Betsy Cornwell. Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.

Author Betsy Cornwell. Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.

A feminist steampunk retelling of Cinderella is gathering buzz. Mechanica sounds incredible, and it comes straight from author Betsy Cornwell’s heart – after all, she loves fairy tale retellings.

In Mechanica, Nicolette learned to be an inventor at her mother’s knee, but her stepsisters have turned her into a servant. When she discovered a secret workshop in the cellar on her sixteenth birthday, she begins to imagine a new life for herself – a life free of her wicked stepsisters.

In addition to Mechanica, Betsy Cornwell is the author of Tides, a YA novel inspired by selkie mythology. She lives in Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way with her horse-trainer husband, though she previously taught fiction writing at Notre Dame.

Today, Cornwell is sharing her top five favorite fairy tale retellings. For more on Cornwell, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.


mechanica betsy cornwellBy the time I started writing Mechanica as a college student, I’d been obsessed with fairy tale retellings for most of my life. My steampunk take on Cinderella wouldn’t be what it is—in fact, it probably wouldn’t exist at all!—if these authors hadn’t beguiled me into the genre long ago. About two and a half of the books I’ve listed are versions of Cinderella (I’ll explain later), but the rest dip into fairy tale traditions from across history.

Beauty by Robin McKinley

I’ve always loved fairy tales, but reading Beauty at age ten was what really got me hooked on retellings. I adored getting to know the main character so well and experiencing the lush details of her world. I still love rereading this book, especially the descriptions of the Beast’s castle and grounds, and I think of it every time I eat buttered toast and hot chocolate for breakfast! Robin McKinley is definitely my fairy tale role model—I have one more of her books on this list, but I could easily have included them all.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

A perfect book, and a giant among Cinderella retellings! Ella’s voice is witty and endearing, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more likeable cast of characters in any book. Prince Char is wonderful, too; Levine really knows how to write believably dreamy fairy tale heroes. (See Fairest and The Two Princesses of Bamarre for two of her other great book boyfriends.)

Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Prince Charming isn’t so dreamy in this one—in fact, he’s a shallow creep—but that’s part of what makes this giant among Cinderella retellings so perfect. Ella’s a tough cookie who gets herself to the ball, but after she’s swept away as the prince’s fiancée, she starts to realize that life at the palace is not so great after all . . . and they’re not just going to let her leave.

Deerskin by Robin McKinley

This is my half-Cinderella retelling, because its source tale, “Allerleirauh” (also called “Donkeyskin” or “Thousandfurs”) is basically Cinderella-as-nightmare. It is a troubling book to get through, but it offers so many gifts of lyricism and insight if you stick with it. Its main character spends much of the novel dealing with severe trauma and repressed memories; it’s also radiantly hopeful, cathartic, and compassionate. Robin McKinley really is without equal among living fairy tale writers.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

A collection of short stories so lusciously written, so dark and seductive and dangerous, that reading The Bloody Chamber is like eating a box of exquisite but poisoned dark chocolates. Angela Carter’s style is so jaw-droppingly gorgeous and intelligent that I learn something new from it every time I return to her writing. The title story is a retelling of Bluebeard, but my favorite may be “The Company of Wolves,” which works with the underlying tensions of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

What are your favorite fairy tale retellings? Sound off in the comments below!

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