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Classic Novel Retellings by Black Authors

By Brittany Holness, Holly Butterfield and Gemma Mathers

​​In recent months, the popularity of classic novel retellings has reached an all-time high. Retellings create a fresh perspective on an old tale and modernise some outdated views and ideals, allowing for different cultures, races and ideologies to be embedded in classic mythology, novels and folklore. This Black History Month, we will highlight some of the best modern retellings by our favourite Black authors.

With many of the classics being published several years ago, it is not surprising that these early fan favourites have now become the benchmark for many popular modern retellings. They often have traces of myth, folklore or classic literature guiding the storyline. Authors have utilised these classics and have introduced unique perspectives, taking their stories in unexpected directions with unique twists and specific objectives that the originals did not typically entail. As such, new versions of old stories are now being marketed with different voices and intriguing storylines, so much so that “retellings” have become its own trope. Bringing unique voices and perspectives, Black authors have been massive contributors to this trope, diversifying these retellings. Such changes to the original story have significantly impacted the tale, with some stories only having minor trails of the original themes and massive distinctions of the new characters and settings compared with the classic takes. A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney is one such story that is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland, featuring a young Black protagonist named Alice. This book differs from the original as Alice is not a child who fell down the rabbit hole but a willing demon slayer with an agenda.

The inspiration for these tales varies from source to source. They can put a modern twist on classics such as Pride by Ibi Zobi, which is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, while others draw on themes and ideas from fairytales and folklore such as Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, which puts a modern-day twist on Arthurian Legend. These retellings allow for refreshing and creative takes on the source subjects and can often change the genre of the original piece in amazing ways, with some authors choosing to stay close to the source material whilst others use it merely as inspiration to craft their own worlds and stories. They have the ability to modernise classic tales from authors such as Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, bringing them into the modern world and making them accessible to wider and newer audiences. Spinning the source material to meet the standards of a new generation can invoke important conversations about the current world whilst also allowing for critiques of the original texts. We can see this in Victor LaVelle’s Destroyer, in which the tale of Frankenstein takes on the horror of violence against the Black community in the modern day and discusses issues of gun violence in today’s society. There are so many ways to retell these stories and bring them to life that authors are able to write unique and compelling tales, focusing on different specific themes, meaning that no two retellings will ever be alike – despite having the same source material.

As aforementioned, several retellings have been making the rounds within the book-reading community, like A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney, Pride by Ibi Zobi, Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and Destroyer by Victor LaVelle. We have some more recommendations for books that are retellings of the classics from diverse perspectives. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige is a novel that encapsulates the story of The Wizard of Oz but takes the story in a new direction. It features Amy Gumm, a seventeen-year-old girl from Kansas who is recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicket with the task of killing Dorothy. Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron introduces an intriguing twist to the classic fairytale Cinderella. This story takes place 200 years after Cinderella, where the new norm is for women to attend an Annual Ball three times a year with the goal of finding a husband. One woman named Sophia is already in love with Erin, her childhood best friend, and does not want a husband. This YA dystopian take on the fairytale focuses on Sophia’s first ball, which did not go as planned, and our protagonist teaming up with an unlikely ally to fight back.

Retellings have created a fantastic space for so many authors to find their voice and engage with a new audience. These novels, like Destroyer, allow for important topics to take centre stage with the support of an already popular story. Black authors in these spaces are so important, bringing a level of diversity to age-old stories that lacked representation.


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