Written by Sue Vazakas and Jenelle Clark, JHU’s Unofficial SF/F Librarians

Many authors enjoy “retelling” a story that already exists – they may want to explore the story through characters whose perspectives were not originally shown, challenge problematic elements in the original text, recontextualize characters, or bring the story into a new historical context or fantastical world to explore new ways of thinking about the source text.

We love a good retelling, and here are some of our favorites (and a few that are on our lists to read over the holidays) for you to enjoy over the winter break.

  • Biles, Adam, Beasts of England: This sequel (!) to Animal Farm continues George Orwell’s 1945 book, placing the spotlight on the UK. It “evokes the original’s characters and backstory,” but the only common character is “Benjamin, the long-lived donkey who remembers the original revolution and its aftermath…” You’ll recognize fake news, COVID, social media, and Brexit, among many other modern afflictions. [The Guardian]
  • Bulawayo, NoViolet, Glory: This retelling of Animal Farm was inspired by the unexpected fall in 2017 of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. The story is “jam-packed with comedy and farce, poking fun at an autocratic regime while illustrating the absurdity and surreal nature of a police state.” [The Guardian]
  • Gong, Chloe, These Violent Delights: This first in a YA fantasy series inspired by Romeo and Juliet is set in 1920s Shanghai amidst a gang war between Russian and Chinese criminal enterprises. Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov are the heirs of rival gangs, grappling not only with the fallout of forbidden romance but also the threat of a terrifying monster that will kill them all if they can’t find a way to work together.
  • Headley, Maria Dahvana, The Mere Wife: A retelling of Beowulf in which Grendel’s mother is a veteran with PTSD who came home from war mysteriously pregnant. In this suburban reimagining that grapples with social class and trauma, Grendel’s mother is simply trying to do her best to protect her son, while faced with the challenges of coming home to a place where she no longer seems to belong. We also highly recommend Headley’s new translation of Beowulf, which evokes the braggadocious telling of tall tales.
  • Huang, S. L., The Water Outlaws: This queer feminist retelling of The Water Margin, which is a classic of martial arts literature first printed in the early 16th century, features a group of bandits determined to fight for justice against an oppressive, corrupt empire. The novel is full of colorful characters and epic wuxia fight scenes. If you love movies and shows with over-the-top martial arts action, this one is for you.
  • Kingfisher, T.: What Moves the Dead: Kingfisher’s retelling is Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic tale The fall of the House of Usher, by way of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. We love Kingfisher’s talent for writing practical protagonists and deeply unsettling atmosphere, and if you finish this and want more, she has a sequel coming out in February, titled What Feasts at Night.
  • Vo, Nghi: The Chosen and the Beautiful: Vo reimagines The Great Gatsby from Jordan Baker’s perspective, making her a queer Asian adoptee who is both an insider and an outsider to the kind of moneyed social circles in which Daisy and Gatsby reside. Set in a Jazz Age world of sorcery and illusion, we loved the author’s beautiful prose and the fascinating new nuances she brought to Fitzgerald’s classic characters.
Japanese artwork from an edition of The Water Margin produced in the late 1820s. It shows a man in colorfully patterned robes, wearing a fur cloak, and holding onto a straw hat that threatens to fly off his head in the gust of wind that blows leaves in his face. He also carries a sword and a hooked polearm.
Kinhyōshi yōrin, hero of the Suikoden, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi for a 19th century edition of “The Water Margin”
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

If you’re looking for short stories, try these two YA collections edited by Dahlia Adler: 

  • His Hideous Heart: 13 of Edgar Allan Poe’s Most Unsettling Tales Reimagined:
    Various authors, including Rin Chupeco, Tessa Gratton, and Tiffany D. Jackson retell Poe’s stories, including “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” We were impressed with the breadth in this anthology, which includes retellings of some of Poe’s lesser-known works. You can find Poe’s original tales reprinted at the end of the anthology, should you want to compare the retellings to the originals.
  • That Way Madness Lies: 15 of William Shakespeare’s Most Notable Works Reimagined:
    Various authors, including Tochi Onyebuchi, Mark Oshiro, and Kiersten White, retell Shakespeare’s plays, including “The Merchant of Venice,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Hamlet,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “King Lear,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Macbeth,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” The authors put a fun contemporary spin on these classics; for example, Kiersten White’s version of Romeo and Juliet is written as a series of text messages.

Finally, try these reimagined historical figures: 

  • Deonn, Tracy, Legendborn: Deonn brings a new twist to Arthurian legends in this YA fantasy that imagines King Arthur and his knights as immortal warriors bound to live on through their descendants to fight the demons that trespass upon our world. Our protagonist Bree is a Black woman who encounters this secret society of “Legendborn” students while at college; she struggles with the racism of the Legendborn and with their obsession over their bloodlines and distrust of any magic they can’t control.
  • Elliott, Kate, Unconquerable Sun: We loved Elliott’s gender-flipped space opera version of Alexander the Great. Like the real Alexander, the biracial Princess Sun’s position as heir becomes much less secure when her mother, Queen-Marshal Eirene, remarries and the new consort’s family openly express hopes that the marriage will produce a “pureblood” heir. Deadly political scheming ensues. Elliott brilliantly transforms details of the historical Alexander’s life for a space opera setting, producing intricate and compelling political drama and warfare on an interstellar scale.
  • Parker-Chan, Shelley, She Who Became the Sun: Inspired by the story of Mulan, this epic fantasy follows the story of a girl who takes on her dead brother’s identity and the great future he was prophesied to have, determined to outrun the empty fate that was given to her at birth. We loved following the exploits of the clever and ambitious Zhu Chongba as she fights to survive and seize the opportunities that come her way.