Teachers Write 7.31.16 Retelling Fairytales with Grace Lin

Good morning! It’s Sunday, which means Jen is hosting the weekly check-in on her blog, Teach Mentor Texts.

Grace Lin is our guest author here today! Grace is the author of the Newbery Honor book WHEN THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, and its new companion book, WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER as well as the Ling & Ting series for emerging readers and a pile of other great books. She joins us today to talk about the magic writers can find in fairytales!

Retelling Fairytales is like Redecorating a House

As a writer, I love retelling fairytales. I like to think of it as refurnishing a well-built house. You already know that the structure is solid, what you are doing is just changing it to your own tastes.

Though, that can be a challenge, too. How do you make a house that has belonged to another family for generations into your own home? How can you dare to take down that porch (which you think is ugly) when it’s been there for hundreds of years?

But think about it this way—for that house to be lived in, for that house to again hold life, it should be adapted for a new owner. That is like our classic stories—for them to continue to live, we should allow them to change for our new generations, for better or worse. I often think about my time in Rome, Italy when I saw a famous Bernini statue sitting in the middle of a busy street, ageing and discoloring. “That’s terrible,” I said to my Italian companion, “In the US, that would be in a museum!” My friend looked at me in shock, “But putting it in a museum would be like killing it! Here it is looked at and enjoyed, it is a part of life.”

Our classic stories are like this. We can let them change and be a part of our modern lives. And as writers, we are the ones that get to do it!

How? Well, for me, it’s allowing myself to ask, “What if?” One of my favorite stories when I was a child was the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ but it was also one that caused me the most pain. As I mention in my TEDx talk, in fifth grade a fellow student told that I could not play Dorothy in the school play because I was Chinese. Devastated, I was so convinced that she was correct that I didn’t even try out at the audition.

Yet, what if Dorothy was Chinese? Why couldn’t she be? What if she didn’t have to be in Kansas at all? What if she wasn’t even called Dorothy, at all?

Because the wonderful, magical thing about stories is that anything can happen. Why is it crazy for Dorothy to be Chinese when her house actually flies to another world? How could that be more unrealistic?

Of course, “what if” questions can be fraught with layers of concerns, especially if—like me—you are choosing to adapt a story that is not exactly of your culture. When I rework a Chinese story, I often worry that I anger traditionalists with my “Americanization” of the stories (a girl, for example, would never go on an adventure). And, with the attention given to diversity (which I think is a really good thing), I know many people worry about “messing up” or “getting in trouble.” But, in the end, it’s just like redecorating that house. I do the best I can to be respectful of the neighbors, but I also have to change it to how I see fit, because I am the one that will live in it.

I hope you like living in yours!

Writing prompt:

Take a fairy tale with traditionally-set-in-stone characters and settings and ask yourself some “What if?” questions. How would the rest of the story go? (Fun tidbit! A character in my upcoming novel, “When the Sea Turned to Silver” was inspired by asking myself, “What if the Little Mermaid was Chinese?”) Here are some “What if” questions to start you out:

“What if Cinderella was a boy?”

“What if Jack (Jack in the Beanstalk) was a girl?”

“What if Sleeping Beauty never woke up?”

“What if Goldilocks were black?”

“What if Hansel & Gretel took place in the sea?”

“What if Snow White’s mother was still alive?”


Watch Grace’s TEDx talk, “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf”


16 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.31.16 Retelling Fairytales with Grace Lin

  1. I know I’m a day late, but I love this idea! Beauty and the Beast has always been my favorite fairy tale. I’ve re-read Robin McKinley’s two adaptations (talk about re-writing a fairy tale, twice) so many times. My writing mentor challenged me to write my own version of B&B to help kick start some writing. As I was brainstorming parts to keep (roses) and parts to change (siblings?), I started wondering what if the Beast was a woman and “Beauty” was a guy. What I realized is that B&B is one of the only stories where the female character saves the male character who is under the enchantment. Switch it around, and it is just like all the others.

    1. I love McKinley’s adaptations! Beauty is one of my favorites. Interesting that is is one of the few fairy tales where a female character saves a male–kind of make you want to gender switch Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty, doesn’t it?

  2. Grace, thank you for this!! Your books look right up my alley. Can’t wait to check them out. I have had great success with students in comparing versions of fairy tales from different cultures and then having students write their own versions. Your “what if” questions are a great resource. I love using fairy tales and folktales as inspiration for my own writing as well. For anyone who enjoys this genre, some online journals you might want to check out are Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, Red Rose Review and Goblin Fruit. These journals are aimed toward adults rather than kids, but you might find work appropriate to share with older students or you might be inspired yourself.

  3. Grace, Thank you for this post. I want to read your books soon. The “what if questions” are helpful. I want to play with these this week.

  4. Grace Linnnnnnnnn!

    Oh, my goodness. Thanks so much for stopping by TW. I am such a fan! When I saw your TED Talk I sent to all the teachers at my school, mom friends on facebook and tweeps.

    Probably TMI but — I’m a wordy girl– my children are a different race than my husband and myself. Our whole family life has had tremendous joy being the family we are. Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd as a mom and librarian I see the tremendous need for my children to see themselves in the mirror of the literature they read so much more than they do.

    I love your prompts! Consider each a writing challenge taken with gusto.

    Please keep up the good work you do. Your words, your speaking and overall positive place in the world of kidlit and the world.

    1. Aww, thank you , Linda for your nice message. Also, many thanks for sharing my TEDx talk! Keep spreading the word, it’s important for all of our families.

  5. Dear Grace,
    I’m a bit late to this reading too, but what a great idea. I think this will be wonderful for my students who are young and yet are familiar with some of the fairy tales. It would be fun for them to redo the fairy tales. What if Jack didn’t climb a bean stalk but a tall building instead? Or if Hansel and Gretel didn’t find a house of candy but of vegetables? Such fun to imagine. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Martha, Hope you don’t mind my jumping in here, but I wanted to say that using fairy tale motifs isn’t just for working with young writers. I work with middle school English Learners, some of whom are NOT familiar with “the canon” of European fairy tales. Of course we also use multicultural resources because many of these stories show up across cultures, but I also think it’s invaluable background knowledge for all students to have exposure to the canon, as these stories appear in allusions in all kinds of writing, from general news to business to sports to fiction and on and on. OK, stepping down off my soap box now!!

    2. Hi Martha!
      Yes, I think this would be a fun idea to do with young students–and, as Jennifer said–older ones as well. I think fairy tales are timeless AND ageless!