How to Fracture a Fairy Tale: Grim undertones to Grimm

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale by Jane YolenHow to Fracture a Fairy Tale by Jane YolenHow to Fracture a Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

One year after Tachyon Publications published The Emerald Circus, a collection of Jane Yolen‘s fantastical short stories based on various fairy tales and legendary people (both fictional and real), it has followed up with a similar collection, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale (2018). Like The Emerald Circus, this is a compilation of Yolen’s older, previously published stories, spiffed up with new author’s notes in which Yolen briefly discuss each story and how she “fractured” it with significant departures from its original source material. These end notes for each story also include a poem by Yolen that’s linked to the same original source material. The source material varies widely, including fairy tales (Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid), vampires, Scottish selkies, Chinese dragons, Greek and Native American legends, and much more.

These twenty-eight reimagined fairy tales and legends also vary greatly in tone. When I finished this collection my first thought was, wow, what a bleak bunch of stories. Looking back on the individual stories, though, it turns out only about eleven or twelve of them (yes, I counted) are really downbeat. That number does include several stories right at the end of the collection, which may explain the somber feeling I had when I finished. One of my favorite stories, though, was one of this set: “Mama Gone,” the story of an Appalachian girl whose mother has died and become a vampire. It’s heartbreaking but surprisingly tender, with a bittersweet note.

One of the themes that surfaces a few times in this collection is the history of Jewish persecution, reflecting Yolen’s Jewish heritage. My favorite of these was “Slipping Sideways Through Eternity,” an unlikely combination of time travel, a quirky Elijah, and the Holocaust, experienced by a modern day Jewish girl with a talent for art. “Granny Rumple” also draws on the historic oppression of Jews, making a thought-provoking connection between that and the tale of Rumpelstiltskin.

Several of these stories deal with the terrible things people do to each other. Sometimes there’s a happy or at least satisfying ending (as in “Green Plague,” a humorous variation on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hameln), but often not. If you thought Robin McKinley’s Deerskin (a retelling of Charles Perrault’s Donkeyskin), was tough to read, with its incest-based plot, Yolen’s similar “Allerleirauh” is even more tragic. At least it was very short! As was “The Gwynhfar,” an equally harrowing tale of another type of abuse.

On the other end of the scale, there are five or six quite humorous tales to lighten things up. My favorites of these were “Cinder Elephant,” a charming tale starring a cheerfully overweight Cinderella, and “Sleeping Ugly,” a humorous twist on Sleeping Beauty:

Princess Miserella was a beautiful princess if you counted her eyes and nose and mouth and all the way down to her toes. But inside, where it was hard to see, she was the meanest, wickedest, and most worthless princess around. She liked stepping on dogs. She kicked kittens. She threw pies in the cook’s face.

The ending of “Sleeping Ugly” left me grinning, as did a sudden twist in “Snow in Summer” (a Snow White story that’s similar to but not to be confused with Yolen’s novel of the same name, which is based on this earlier story).

Overall, I have to say that I enjoyed The Emerald Circus more. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale contains a dozen more stories than the sixteen in that prior collection, but the stories in The Emerald Circus were longer ones that engaged me more as a reader. (Plus: not generally as bleak as this set.) Still, there are some excellent stories in this collection, and if you’re a fan of Jane Yolen’s brand of story-telling, this is worth checking out.

Published in November 2018. Fantasy icon Jane Yolen (The Devil’s ArithmeticBriar RoseSister Emily’s Lightship) is adored by generations of readers of all ages. Now she triumphantly returns with this inspired gathering of fractured fairy tales and legends. Yolen breaks open the classics to reveal their crystalline secrets: a philosophical bridge that misses its troll, a spinner of straw as a falsely accused moneylender, the villainous wolf adjusting poorly to retirement. Each of these offerings features a new author note and original poem, illuminating tales that are old, new, and brilliantly refined.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. Interesting concept!

    I love looking at how anthology editors choose to place stories in anthologies and collections. There certainly can be unintended consequences (that feeling of bleakness, perhaps).

    • It definitely would be interesting to me to understand the thought process behind the ordering of stories in this collection! The set at the beginning does make sense, and I think “Snow in Summer” started the book off well (I actually liked the short story version here better than the later novel version of it). But the ending set seemed too heavy, and I wasn’t all that taken with the concluding story, “Wrestling with Angels.”

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