A school recently asked me to start a reading club for their students, and I had my first session on Saturday. While a club celebrating books sounded right up my alley, I decided to cast the net wider by looking at stories in all formats including but not limited to films, TV shows, cartoons, podcasts, Youtube videos, video games, music, photography, comic books, Facebook, Twitter, and possibly, in a future session, stories told entirely through emojis.
I didn’t want to throw them off the deep end on the very first session, though, so I started off simple. The session focused on retellings.
A poet and scholar called A. K. Ramanujan said, “In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already’.”
This is true of Indian mythology and it’s also true of fairy tales the world over. These stories are so old, that they never go out of fashion. Everyone knows them, or knows of them.
But my favourite versions of these tales are retellings, a new way to tell an old story. If a book promises to be an imaginative version of ancient mythology, or if it features fractured fairy tales, I’ll instantly add it to my to-read list. I love it when familiar plot lines are turned upside down, or everyone acts out of character, or even when they’re all transported to another time/world.
I think retellings are so popular partly because we know these old stories so thoroughly that they become exciting and fun when they don new avatars. But I think the problematic aspects of these old narratives also plays a role in us seeking new versions – the casual sexism, the one-dimensional characters, the insistence on being either wholly good or wholly evil without any in-between, the blatant fear of anything or anyone who is different.
To be fair, we live in a different world from when these stories were first told. We have different values, our sense of morality has shifted. I love retellings precisely because we’re free to do absolutely anything with the original stories. The characters and plots are such an intrinsic part of our cultural consciousness, that we can make them more interesting by playing around with them. We know the rules well enough so that bending them doesn’t pose too much of a problem.
Which brings me to the list the title promised.
RETELLINGS OF INDIAN MYTHOLOGY
Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni
This is an utterly gorgeous book, which features the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective – a point of view not many people seem to be familiar with. Only a handful of the students (between grades 5 and 8) were aware of Sita’s circumstances after the war. The book breaks down the narrative and relays the story simply, without any dramatic flourishes but with a great deal of compassion. If you’d like to take a look at the making of the book, you can read this.
Suggested age: 12+
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
It’s an approach similar to Sita’s Ramayana, in that it’s the Mahabarata from Draupadi’s (or Panchaali, as she’s known here) point of view. But it widens the scope and is richer in details since it has much more room to play around with. What I found quite strange was that while the narrative seemed perfectly normal to me, apparently it had created a stir in some other quarters for being too feminist!
Suggested age: Not too many teens might find this appealing since Indian mythology isn’t considered cool, but for those who are interested, I’d say 12+
Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana by Various Authors
Where else are you going to find an anthology with a time-travelling Sita, aliens in the Ramayana or Surpanakha as a reality TV show contestant?
Suggested age: Tough to peg an age limit for this one, but I’d say an advanced reader who isn’t afraid to experiment. And of course, any adults with a taste for the strange.
Asura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan
I haven’t read this book, but the premise sounds intriguing. You never hear about the Ramayana from Ravan’s perspective. This book’s definitely on my list.
Suggested age: Your guess is as good as mine.
Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda
This is a book trying to ride the Percy Jackson-induced mythology wave (OH for Rick Riordan to have a free rein to work on an Indian mythology-centric series). But it’s not half bad. Technically, it doesn’t count as a retelling, I suppose, but it’s still great fun. Our country’s ancient tales have so much retelling potential that I’d love to see this trend continue.
Suggested age: 9+
The Wordkeepers by Jash Sen
This is a fairly unconventional take on mythology. Like Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, it isn’t exactly a retelling – more like ancient mythology meets the modern world. The book features peripheral characters from the Mahabharata and has a fascinating blend of new characters, old myths and plenty of twists.
Suggested age: 12+
Also, watch the film Sita Sings the Blues (available for free here), an excellent version of the Ramayana.
FAIRY TALE RETELLINGS
Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl
This is my favourite Dahl book. It’s his interpretation of six fairy tales, told in his inimitable style with dollops of wicked rhymes, clever schemes and surprise endings.
Suggested age: 10+
Girls to the Rescue by Sowmya Rajendran
I love complaining about the princesses in fairy tales for being generally useless and spectacularly boring (I watched Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the first time a few weeks ago. What even was that?). Which is exactly why I love this book where the princesses do exactly what I’ve been wanting them to do. They take control of their own lives and manage to be interesting people I could actually imagine being friends with.
Suggested age: 10+
A Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom by Christopher Healy
This book is the first in The League of Princes series. The fairy tale princes are tired of being ignored and are determined to make a name for themselves. They set out to be heroes but they are astonishingly bad at the job. The book brings together characters from four different fairy tales – Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Cinderella – and is the funniest thing I’ve read all year. If there’s just one book from the list you’ll read, make it this one. I can’t wait to read the other books in this series!
Suggested age: 9+ (If they’re reading Percy Jackson, they can handle this)
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves: Reloaded by Poulomi Mukherjee and Amit Tayal
I picked up this comic book from my library specifically for the club session. It transports the Arabian Nights tale to present day Mumbai where Ali Baba is an autorickshaw driver and the forty thieves are the Russian mafia. I thought the change in setting was pretty cool, but I expected the book to take more liberties with the plot. But it followed the same story as the original with a change in period. I’d recommend it for people who aren’t too familiar with the original, or who don’t mind reading the same story in a different setting.
Suggested age: 10+
The Fairy Tale Twists series by Katie Dale
This is an early chapter book series where the stories are told in rhyme and has really inventive twists to familiar tales. My favourite moment was in Prince Charming’s Princess Quest where the prince stumbles upon a seemingly dead Snow White who can only be brought back by true love’s kiss. His reaction? “I don’t even know her. How can I be her true love!” So one of the dwarfs, who does know Snow quite well, steps up to the job and kisses her instead. He turns out to be her true love and they live happily ever after!
The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
I haven’t read this series, but it sounds fascinating. It’s essentially fairy tales in space, with some of the characters as robots. Each book entails a new take on an old fairy tale, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White. The story takes place in a futuristic world where humans, cyborgs, and anrdroids all coexist.
Suggested age: From what I can make out, 13+
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
I’ve been looking out for this picture book for a couple of years now. It dismisses The Three Little Pigs as mere propaganda and tells you the other side of the story. What really happened when Alexander T. Wolf met the three pigs?
Suggested age: 6+
Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige
As soon as I read the title, I knew I wanted to read the book (I haven’t managed to find a copy yet). It speaks of an Oz where the Good Witches are up to no good, the Wicked Witches may be the good guys, and Dorothy has gone on a power trip and taken over the kingdom.
Suggested age: 12+
Alice in Deadland by Mainak Dhar
Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite books. While I’m ambivalent about zombies, I love the idea of mixing the undead with Lewis Carroll’s crazy world. It’s the first book in the Alice in Deadland series.
Suggested age: 13+