Cracking open the classics: Here are Kiran Millwood Hargrave's top retellings of stories for middle grade readers

Published on: 17 September 2019 Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Award-winning author Kiran Millwood Hargrave shares her favourite modern updates of classic tales, which all spin another brilliant side to the story. 

They say there are two sides to every story, but in my four years writing I’ve found that really there are loads more than that!

My first book for young adult readers, The Deathless Girls, was written as a way to give unheard characters justice, and a voice. For older readers, I’d encourage you to try Renée Ahdieh’s incredible The Wrath and the Dawn, a take of Arabian Nights, Malorie Blackman’s storming Othello interpretation Chasing the Stars, or Becoming Dinah, Kit de Waal’s moving and stunning take on Moby Dick.

But for middle grade readers (aged 8-12), here are five books for anyone interested in hearing a different point of view on a story you think you already know.

1. The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett

I love fairytales, but they can be a bit boring. Princesses falling asleep, princesses locked in towers, princesses being rescued. I like darker tales. Growing up, I read lots of folk tales, myths, and graphic novels of the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic of good and evil. The Seven Dancing Princesses was one of my favourite stories, with its rebellious girls. But they were ultimately caught by a man, and punished for disobeying their father. In The Restless Girls, Burton erases this dubious moral lesson, making the girls wild and brilliant and free – like all children should be.

Read the book review

2. Wishing For Tomorrow by Hilary McKay

There are some stories you wish would never end, and for me, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of them. Alongside The Secret Garden, it unlocked a magic for me that was rooted in reality. Already a retelling of sorts (a take on Cinderella), it got the sequel it deserved from the wonderful Hilary McKay, in the form of Wishing for Tomorrow. This takes on minor characters and gives them new breath, cracking open the world wider to allow new heroes to step forward. It also offers new, hopeful ways of coping with grief and change.

Read the book review

3. Strange Star by Emma Carroll

The best retellings/re-imaginings stand on their own, without need for knowledge of the original influence, and this is very much the case here. I didn’t read Frankenstein until I was a grown up, but Strange Star is a book I’d have loved as a child. A story within a story, this superb slice of fiction tells the origin story of Frankenstein by feminist hero Mary Shelley. Gothic, exciting and twisty, the tale of Carroll’s blind protagonist influences the classic in unexpected ways. This highly original threading through of fact and fiction is a masterclass in storytelling.

4. Into the Jungle by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Kristjana S Williams

Short stories are perfect, especially when you can’t settle to a longer book, and I love linked short stories like those in Katherine Rundell’s beautiful Into the Jungle, lushly illustrated by Kristjana S Williams. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling was admittedly never one of my favourite books, complicated by prejudice and stereotypes common to its time, but Rundell’s interpretation of his world is glorious. Telling origin stories of major and minor characters, it weaves a rich tapestry of adventure and excitement perfect for any reader.

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5. Return to Wonderland by Various

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is surely one of the true great classics of literature. Madcap, irreverent and uniquely imaginative, I still adore reading it. And some of that irreverence and joy in storytelling can be found in another short story collection, this time by a "who’s who" of children’s writers, including Maz Evans, Swapna Haddow, Patrice Lawrence and Robin Stevens. Each story offers something unique and often hilarious – for example, Lawrence’s story is told from the point of view of a hedgehog croquet. 

Have a younger child? Here are some modern fairy tales for 5-8 year olds

The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Hachette) is out now: the second book in the new Bellatrix collection, a creatively curated list of empowering, diverse YA novels by leading female voices.

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