As the saying goes, there are two—sometimes three!—sides to every story. We all know stories and characters like Cinderella, Huck Finn, Peter Pan, and Romeo and Juliet, but what if there was another way to view them? What if the heroes we love were flawed in a way we never realized? What if the villains or the people shoved to the side were in fact the most interesting? We never would have known had it not been for the authors below. Here’s a list of books that dared to take on the classics, presenting the age-old tales from another point of view and, in the process, created whole new worlds for us to explore.
A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Geraldine Brooks’s modern classic animates the character of Mr. March from Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel LITTLE WOMEN. As his daughters come of age in Concord, he is off supporting the Union cause during the Civil War. What he encounters during his experience, brilliantly imagined here by Brooks, changes his marriage and shakes his beliefs to the core.
We all know the tale of woe centered on Juliet and her Romeo, but in her gorgeous novel, Lois Leveen takes on the perspective of the character who knew it best: Juliet’s nurse, the woman who kept her secrets. Starting with the young Cappelletti’s birth and following the pair’s special bond over the next 14 years, when she meets a boy who will change everything, JULIET’S NURSE is the perfect next read for fans of Philippa Gregory and Sarah Dunant.
This sumptuous tragicomedy of Juliet Cappelletti’s wet-nurse, a mother still in mourning from the death of her own infant, explores bonds of love perhaps more all-encompassing than that of the doomed young lovers from the Shakespeare classic that inspired it.
This is a young adult book, but don’t let that stop you from picking it up. It’s a magical, beautiful, and thought-provoking expansion of the classic J. M. Barrie tale, told from Tiger Lily’s perspective before and during Wendy’s time in Neverland. This is a moving story about love, loss, and what it means to grow up. (It also made this list writer cry, if that’s any indication of its power!)
Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair. Told from the perspective of Tinkerbell, Tiger Lily reveals her history with Peter, what happened when Wendy Darling arrived in Neverland, and how far Tiger Lily is willing to go to keep Peter with her.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
Best known for WICKED, his retelling of the Oz legend, Gregory Maguire weaves an equally intense and revealing web around the Cinderella fairy tale, bringing the story back to life through the eyes of Iris, a young woman in seventeenth-century Holland who is forced to make a number of sacrifices for her mother and sister.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
The Mists of Avalon
This book is a big one, but it’s worth every single page. It’s a fabulous retelling of the Arthurian legend that reveals the creation of Camelot, not through Merlin or the Knights of the Round Table, but through the powers of Avalon, a mystical island where women rule. (And, if you’re in the mood for more, there’s a fantastic TNT adaptation with a badass cast.)
This beloved series explores the magic and mythology of King Arthur’s Britain. Told from the perspective of the female characters who are usually marginalized in Arthurian legend, it is sure to appeal to readers who love Outlander’s feminist contribution to the fantasy genre.
Pap Finn only appears briefly in Mark Twain’s masterpiece about his son, Huck, but that one appearance was enough to inspire Jon Clinch to center his debut novel around him. A brutal and mysterious man, Pap’s given a full life and backstory here, and like the best books do, it makes you look at someone you thought you knew in a different—and dare I say, sympathetic—way.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
This one’s a play, but since the source material is too, we’re including it here—plus, it’s a classic on its own! Two minor characters in HAMLET, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are now the leads in Stoppard’s adaptation. Like a “Shakespearean Laurel and Hardy,” they interpret the dramatic events at Elsinore and are set on their own hilarious—and tragic—path.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
It’s hard to put into words the importance I place on my father’s beat-up 1967 copy of this—I was so young when I first picked it up, certainly too young to ‘get’ it at the time, but nonetheless I credit it for planting a seed in my mind that characters might well have lives and thoughts beyond what their creators show us. It was also my first taste of playful takes on the classics beyond outright spoofs. And lest we forget, Stoppard also co-wrote Shakespeare in Love, one of the most enchanting takes on the Bard ever committed to film. -Adam Bertocci
In 1720, a woman who had previously been castaway on an island approaches Daniel Foe. She wants him to tell her story, and the story of the man who saved her: Cruso. As her memories vacillate between truth and lie, Foe begins to create a story for himself, one that will become a classic of English literature. The result is a fascinating examination of how characters and legends are made. (Can you guess what it is?)
A woman approaches Daniel Foe, a trader and writer, and claims to have been a castaway on a deserted island. She tells her story, and that of her rescuer, Cruso, and his manservant, Friday. This smart retelling of ROBINSON CRUSOE illustrates the power of storytelling and the various ways people can perceive the truth.
Everyone loves the exploits of Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters, but what about the people operating behind the scenes of Jane Austen’s iconic PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Jo Baker takes us downstairs in this acclaimed novel focused on the servants of the Bennet household, namely Sarah, their orphaned housemaid, and a mysterious footman who arrives and changes everything.
Jo Baker’s novel is a completely different take on Pride and Prejudice. Mentioned only fleetingly in Jane Austen’s classic, the servants take center stage in this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to the beloved novel and dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Regency England.
The Song of Achilles
We all know Homer’s THE ILLIAD, the story of Helen and the war that was started over her, but in this thrilling novel, Madeline Miller gives us a fresh perspective on the other famous name to emerge from Troy: Achilles, the epic warrior who fought for the Greeks. Wildly romantic and surprisingly suspenseful, it’s beautifully written and a memorable read.
“I’ve always thought that a good book should be either the entry point inward, to learn about yourself, or a door outward, to open you up to new worlds. With THE SONG OF ACHILLES, Madeline Miller gave me both.”
Read the full review by Taylor Jenkins Reid here.
Putting a new face (no pun intended) on the Jekyll and Hyde story, MARY REILLY blends details from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic with an original and captivating character who works for the tortured doctor and begins to suspect that something is terribly wrong. Still, she is protective of her employer, and is forced on a path that will test her devotion—and her limits.