WRITING FEATURE New Tales from Old

SCBWI author Sophie Anderson tells us how she found inspiration in fairy tales for her debut novel, The House with Chicken Legs.

My debut novel The House with Chicken Legs was inspired by the Eastern European fairy tales my grandmother told me when I was young. Many of the tales featured Baba Yaga, a witch who lives deep in the forest in a hut on hen’s legs and rides around in a giant mortar which she steers with a pestle.

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin, 1899
Baba Yaga terrified and fascinated me in equal measure. She could be incredibly cruel, threatening to eat visitors to her hut, but she could also be kind and compassionate, giving visitors advice or magical objects. I always wondered how Baba Yaga could be both villain and helper, and this wondering grew into a new story!

Fairy tales can provide an endless source of inspiration for writers. For me, they always ask more questions than they answer; the sort of questions that spark new stories, such as:

How can Baba Yaga be both cruel and kind? 
Why does the Sea Witch want the Little Mermaid’s voice? 
Who taught Rumpelstiltskin to spin straw into gold? 

There is such a rich and vast selection of fairy tale characters to explore and reimagine in original ways, I believe writers can have immense fun playing with the genre. So, if you fancy a try, here are my top three tips to help you create new tales from old:

1. Take a character out 

The House with Chicken Legs began when I took Baba Yaga out of the old tales. I researched her origins and thought deeply about what she represented and who she might be. Then I reimagined my own Baba Yaga. I gave her a job, guiding the dead, that I felt explained people’s fear of her and her links with death, whilst giving me the opportunity to explore the kind and compassionate side of her nature. Choosing one character from a fairy tale and exploring them further, fleshing them out, giving them a history and telling their side of the story, can be a wonderful way to create new tales. It can be a very successful technique too, particularly where villains are concerned. Fairy tale reimaginings that tell the villain’s side of the story have become popular in recent years; from the movie Maleficent to the book and stage show Wicked, to books that explore villains from Captain Hook to The Sea Witch.

Recent books that tell the villain’s side of the story: Sea Witch by Sarah Henning, Lost Boy by Christina Henry, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire, and Heartless by Marissa Meyer

2. Put a character in 

Whilst The House with Chicken Legs began with Baba Yaga, the book tells the story of Marinka, a twelve-year-old girl. Once I had reimagined Baba Yaga I began wondering what it might be like to live with her, in her house with chicken legs, spending every night guiding the dead. An image appeared in my mind of a young girl, Marinka, rebuilding the skull and bone fence after it collapsed in the night, and I immediately knew I wanted to tell her story. As soon as I started writing Marinka, she became incredibly real to me. I knew she was frustrated with fixing the fence and with only meeting the dead, who only ever stayed for one night. I knew she was lonely, living in a house with chicken legs on the edge of society, and I knew she was struggling to find her place in the world. She most definitely did not want to become the next Guardian of the Gate but had been told all her life this was her destiny. Once I knew what she wanted, Marinka’s story seemed to write itself – and I must admit everything that happened in it took me by surprise!

Marinka by Elisa Paganelli, internal illustration from The House with Chicken Legs

3. Move characters to a new time and place 

In the original Baba Yaga tales, Baba Yaga’s hut on hen’s legs lies deep in the forest. One of the things I found hugely enjoyable about writing The House with Chicken Legs was allowing the house to travel all over the world; to mountains, deserts, tropical beaches, street markets, grasslands and snowscapes. Changing the setting of fairy tales can immediately breathe new life into the stories. In The Starlit Wood, a collection of new fairy tales edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, authors were challenged to move familiar fairy tales out of the woods, and the results are both dramatic and wonderful. One of my favourites in the collection is In the Desert Like a Bone by Seanan McGuire, in which we follow a young girl wearing a wide brimmed red hat as she rides across the desert with the outlaw Coyote. And there is a hugely popular series by Marissa Meyer in which familiar fairy tales are reimagined in a dystopic future where humans, androids and cyborgs live in a colony on the moon.

The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
As oral tales, fairy tales have been told and retold to suit different audiences for thousands of years. Reimagining stories keeps the genre relevant and appealing to new generations and provides the opportunity to challenge and remove outdated values and stereotypes found in older versions of tales, so they better represent the world today. Writers working with the genre have access to an ocean of inspiration, and through reimagining tales they become part of a long tradition of storytellers who spread wonder and enchantment, whilst providing a safe space to explore the world, life, and what it means to be human. I hope writers continue to create new tales from old and keep this wonderful genre alive!

Header image: Cover illustration by Melissa Castrillon

credit seenicksphotography
Sophie Anderson is the author of The House with Chicken Legs, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli, published by Usborne, and selected as Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month for May. She lives with her husband, three children, a guinea pig and two lambs in the Lake District.


  1. I can’t wait to read this book it sounds inspiring. Well done Sophie and thanks for generously sharing all your tips. I used a couple of these techniques when I rewrote Rumplestiltskin for a Serial Mash commission. Nice piece. Thank you!

  2. Forgot to say... Baba Yaga was in one of my ALL TIME favourite books when I was growing up. The Dark Horn Blowing by Dahlov Ipcar. Have you read it? You’d love it!

    1. I haven't read that, Camilla. I shall seek out a copy :) Thanks so much for your kind words, and I hope you enjoy Marinka's story x


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