YA Retellings of Classics
Before too long, there will also be Victor Malo-Juvera, Paula Greathouse, and Brooke Eisenbach’s forthcoming edited collection of essays, Shakespeare and Adolescent Literature: Pairing and Teaching. According to a call for chapter proposals, this book seeks to “extend the work done by Kaywell (Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics) and Gallo (From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges between Young Adult Literature and the Classics) by offering teachers chapters that examine Shakespeare’s most taught works combined with adolescent literature.” So, while there is a significant amount that has been written on pairing YA literature with classics, less has been written on explicit retellings of classics. So that’s what we’d like to bring up in today’s YA Wednesday.
We also took into account which frequently taught classics had multiple YA retellings. We also focused on the retellings were aimed at the YA market and explicitly designated as a retelling or “remix.” We looked at internet lists (including ones from the Teen Librarian Toolbox blog of School Library Journal, the Seattle Public Library, Barnes and Noble, and more) of retellings and took notice of which works were mentioned on more than one list and which were written by renowned YA authors. We looked for retellings that featured diverse gender and cultural groups. We also wanted to focus on recently written retellings, published from 2010 forward.
Pride and Prejudice
With these issues in mind, let’s look at Ibi Zoboi’s Pride: A Pride and Prejudice Remix (2018). In 19th-century England, Jane Austen’s smart Lizzy Bennet challenges her more well-to-do neighbors’ notions of her worth. Both Lizzy and Mr. Darcy have their egos taken down a peg when they learn they can’t trust first impressions. Similarly, first impressions betray Zuri Benitez and Darius Darcy, teens in present-day Brooklyn. Darcy and his family are wealthy African-Americans who “move into the hood” (1). Protective of her neighborhood and wary of gentrification, Hatian-Dominican-American Zuri’s prejudice prevents her from seeing Darius’s good qualities for much of the novel. Darius Darcy worries that the low-income Janae Benitez is more interested in his brother Ainsley Darcy’s money than his character. Both Zuri and Darius learn that their assumptions, based on social class, are not always right. They challenge each other and end up with more nuanced understandings of what it means to be nonwhite in America. Both novels, which take place in vastly different times and places, among different ethnic groups, ask readers to examine their overt and implicit biases. Both novels question the legitimacy of the power that the wealthy exert so often in the world.
Sense and Sensibility
Continuing on with Austen retellings and explorations of social class, readers who enjoy Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility will find Blair Thornburgh’s 2019 novel Ordinary Girls a familiarly delightful experience. The YA novel’s focus is on two sisters, Plum and Ginny Blatchley, who could not be any more contradictory in temperament. Plum is a sarcastic introvert who is positioned mostly as an outsider at the exclusive Gregory School where the sisters are enrolled. In contrast, Ginny is a social butterfly, constantly worried about everyone else’s opinions and equally anxious about getting into the right college. When their mother’s finances cause multiple problems for the family, Plum takes a positon tutoring Tate Kurakowa, one of the LSBs (“Loud Sophomore Boys”), for his English class. Plum’s relationship with Tate serves as the main romantic element in Thornburgh’s story, but that element does not overshadow the focus on the Batchley sisters’ frequent bickering and bemoaning of each other’s shortcomings (and dipping occasionally into sweet flashbacks of their quirky closeness as children). Plum and Ginny are not as fully developed as Austen’s Dashwood sisters; however, the author of Ordinary Girls challenges readers to consider the Blatchley sisters’ responses to internal and external conflicts while simultaneously portraying them through sharp, scintillating dialogue that leaves the book’s audience with a delightful afterglow.
The Great Gatsby
Sara Benincasa’s Great (2014) brings a twenty-first century feminist and queer twist to The Great Gatsby* by reimagining the classic story as centered on teenager Naomi Rye, who is on a court-ordered visit to her mother in eastern Long Island with the fancy, jet-set crowd she doesn’t like and is fascinated by next door neighbor Jacinta Trimalchio, the mysterious fashion blogger who will do just about anything to get close to senator’s daughter and object of her affection, Delilah Fairweather. Delilah is the impetus for Jacinta’s many extravagant purchases and the guest of honor at an over-the-top event attended by the Hamptons’ teen élite. Benincasa’s choice to recreate the Gatsby story with major and minor characters who are lesbians is noteworthy because of the way Jacinta and Naomi’s best friend in Chicago, Skags, are portrayed: as characters who are not involved in a coming out story but who are characters who are just living their lives without their identities being an issue. (For more on that issue, see Amanda Marcotte’s 2018 “Queer Young Adult Fiction Grows beyond the Coming Out Story”.) While Great mirrors Fitzgerald’s novel in many ways, including its depiction of the excesses of the upper classes, Naomi’s story is engaging in its own right thanks to Benincasa’s construction of an authentic and relatable teenaged narrator.
* Bickmore intruding. One of my favorite book is recent years an best of the year pick for me in 2017 is another Great Gatsby retelling, The Duke of Bannerman Prep, by Katie A. Nelson
Moving from retellings of canonical works that critique issues of social class, let’s now consider the retellings of hero tales that we found. In one retelling of a hero tale, Libba Bray’s Going Bovine (2010), readers encounter Cameron Smith, a sixteen-year-old diagnosed with Mad Cow disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). After he is visited in the hospital by a Dulcie (who has a “pixieish face,” spiky pink hair, and angel wings “spray-painted with stencils of the Buddha Cow”), Paul “Gonzo” Gonzales (a pot smoking, video game playing dwarf), and a garden gnome who might be Balder, the Norse god, Cameron goes on a road trip to look for Dr. X, a time-traveling scientist who might have a cure for Cameron’s illness. Bray’s novel infuses elements of Don Quixote throughout, including a romance between the main character and the ethereal lady he thinks he sees, a quirky sidekick who accompanies him on a quest journey, and themes of dream-like visions experienced while seeking truth and justice. The surrealistic, stream-of-consciousness writing invites readers to let go of reality and go along with Cameron and his sidekicks for the quest journey of a lifetime, even if it’s only the result of a hallucination in Cameron’s disease-altered brain.
In one Odyssey retelling, The Last True Love Story, by Brandon Kiely (2016), Teddy Hendrix is on a quest to transport his ailing grandfather from the Calypso assisted living facility in Los Angeles back to his hometown of Ithaca, New York. Poet Teddy gains courage as he departs from his comfort zone. The risks he learns to take on his journey are not only physical ones like learning how to drive and deal with car problems, but much more emotional ones: how to push for information that Grandpa has concealed about the family and how to express his love for Corinna. Classic rock songs and their lyrics are woven through this journey of family reunion and family forgiveness. Teddy and Grandpa are accompanied by Corinna, Teddy’s crush, who is running away from adoptive parents who don’t understand her adventurous spirit or her ethnic identity struggles as the Guatemalan-born child of white “ex-hippies” who, misguidedly, claim that they “don’t see race” (115). While Odysseus wonders who he really is as he transitions from wartime to peacetime and endures delay after delay in his return home, Corinna pushes the envelope even further, getting at the identity challenges teens face now in a geographically mobile and multicultural society: “I don’t have an Ithaca. What am I supposed to do with that?” (188). While the Los Angeles of Corinna’s upbringing is home, she doesn’t feel at home there; while Guatemala is her birthplace, she is alienated from the language and culture of that place. When Corinna and Teddy vanquish their Cyclops figure and Corinna refers to herself as “nobody” (40-41) we get a new and nuanced twist on Odysseus’ use of the word.
In Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s 2012 novel, Summer of the Mariposas, Odilia, eldest of five Latina sisters living in a Texas border town, leads her sisters on an epic journey to return the body of an immigrant who perished in the Rio Grande back to his family in Mexico. As in the Odyssey, both resourcefulness and divine intervention help reunite families. As the mythological Greek goddess Athena guides Odysseus, Mexican folk character La Llorona and Aztec Mother-of-Creation Tonantzin guide Odilia and her sisters as they escape mythical creatures of Mexico: the nagual (who cooks children), the lechuzas (who are a kind of malevolent owl), and the chupacabras (who sucks blood from goats). Upon return to their Texas, our heroines must continue their fight as their previously absent father’s greedy new wife and children try to take their home (think of Telemachus and Penelope fending off the suitors). These young Latinas are the heroines of Summer of the Mariposas and show that bravery and courage aren’t just for wealthy men and that opportunities for adventure and excellence are present in everyday modern life, not just in ancient Greece. Catholic imagery and loteria card symbolism animate and illuminate this exciting tale.
Speaking of retellings that bring female perspectives to male-centered classics, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White (2018) is a dark and engaging young adult novel that offers readers a feminist perspective on the classic tale of Elizabeth and Victor Frankenstein and the creature who complicated their lives. White turns Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on its head, offering up to readers a complex character in Elizabeth Lavenza, who is hired as a companion for Victor Frankenstein and escapes her horribly abusive childhood. The YA novel parallels the original in many ways, especially through the characterization of Victor and the monster he creates and in the inclusion of Justine, a servant who lives with the Frankenstein family, befriends Elizabeth, and is accused of murdering one of the Frankenstein children. Many readers may find themselves frustrated with Elizabeth’s willingness to excuse Victor’s behavior and choice to do anything to keep him happy, even going so far as to cover up some of his acts of violence
Another dark, Gothic tale we encountered was Hannah Capin’s 2020 new release, Foul Is Fair. Just as Shakespeare’s Macbeth warns us about unchecked ambition, so does the retelling. But while Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan is avenged by those who seek to put Duncan’s rightful heirs back into power, Capin’s novel rejects the idea that the king (and later his heirs) deserved their power in the first place. Jade Khanjara, daughter of an immigrant’s son who became a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, is sexually assaulted at a party on her sixteenth birthday. The assault is facilitated and perpetrated by the entitled sons of Los Angeles’ elite: Duncan, Duffy, Connor, Banks, Mack, Porter, and Malcolm. With the help of her “coven” of three close female friends (transgender Latina Maddalena de los Santos--Mads--, Asian-American Jenny Kim, and Summer Horowitz), Jade gets revenge by manipulating Mack into killing all his friends. While Lady Macbeth is portrayed as having no reason other than greed to urge Macbeth into usurping Duncan’s throne, Jade has a legitimate complaint against her assailants. Lady Macbeth may be a sort of gold-digger, but Jade is portrayed as an empowered avenger. While both versions of Macbeth show powerful women and condemn greed, Fair Is Foul takes the story further to condemn rape culture and interrogate the wealthy male power structure that creates it.
Romeo and Juliet
Going in a different direction with a Shakespearean retelling is Pamela L. Laskin’s Ronit and Jamil (2017), a Palestinian-Israeli retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Ronit and Jamil has a more optimistic ending than Romeo and Juliet; instead of dying at the end, the young people are able to get passports to America where they can be together. Throughout the story, the political is personal as we see the effects of senseless hostility on two unwitting teenagers with modern, relatable lives. The narrative alternates between Ronit’s poems and Jamil’s. Some of the poems are text messages between the two teens. This elegant novel in verse includes quotes from Rumi, Mahmoud Darwish, and Shakespeare. Hebrew and Arabic terms are present throughout, and the Middle Eastern ghazal form of poetry is sometimes used. The forms are deftly woven together to portray the two young lovers’ inquiries into the policies of their country and the beliefs of their parents.
Young Adult Literature
Bray, Libba. (2010). Going Bovine. Ember.
Capin, Hannah. (2020). Foul is Fair. St. Martin’s.
Kiely, Brendan. (2017). The Last True Love Story. Simon & Schuster.
Laskin, Pamela. (2017). Ronit & Jamil. HarperCollins.
McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. (2015). Summer of the Mariposas. Lee & Low.
Thornburgh, Blair. (2020). Ordinary Girls. HarperTeen.
White, Kiersten. (2019). Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. Ember.
Zoboi, Ibi. (2018). Pride. Balzer & Bray.
Barnes and Noble Teen Blog. (6 Sept. 2017). 6 YA Retellings of Literary Classics.
Stallworth, B. J. and Gibbons, L.C.. (2012). What’s On The List…Now? A Survey of Book-Length Works Taught in Secondary Schools. English Language Quarterly, 34.3, 2-3.Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2020). English Language Arts Appendix B: Exemplar Texts. Common Core State Standards.
California Department of Education. (26 Nov. 2019). Recommended Literature List.
Herz, Sarah K. (2005). From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges between Young Adult Literature and the Classics. 2nd ed. Greenwood.
Herzog, K. (2020). Jay Gatsby in Today’s World: Using Young Adult Novels in Book Clubs.
Herzog, K. (2019). Ralph and Piggy Meet the Wilder Girls: Pairing Young Adult Novels with Classics in Your Classroom. Random House.
Kaywell, J. F. (2000). Adolescent Literature As a Complement to the Classics. Rowman and Littlefield.
Korsavidis, N. and Jensen, K. (3 Oct. 2018) YA A to Z: R is for Classic Retellings.
Malo-Juvera, V.; Greathouse, P.; and Eisenbach, B. (2021, forthcoming.) Shakespeare and Adolescent Literature: Pairing and Teaching. Rowman and Littlefield.
Marcotte, A. (2018, June 25). Queer young adult fiction grows beyond the coming out story. Salon.
Miskec, J. M. (Summer 2013). Young Adult Literary Adaptations of the Canon. ALAN Review, 40.3: 75-85.
Seattle Public Library. (n.d.). YA Retellings.
Styslinger, Mary E. Workshopping the Canon. NCTE, 2017.