Be they echoes of tales from long ago, retellings or twisted and fractured mash-ups – fairytales never lose their appeal. This issue, author and Words & Pictures' Production Editor Tracy Curran discusses gender representation in fairytales.

From as far back as I can remember, I have loved fairytales. I grew up clutching my dad’s dusty volumes of both Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales and A Treasury of Hans Christian Anderson, which had zero pictures but were utterly treasured. The magical settings, the characters and the dark sense of danger intoxicated me and, 40 years on, they still do. But as society has moved forward, original fairytales have become outdated. Now, modern day fairytale twists have taken on the role of updating these classics by championing diversity and challenging and changing stereotypes.

While traditional fairytales and illustrations still have their place, modern twisted 
tales challenge gender stereotypes. Illustration by Nora Racz

During my first year of my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa university, I decided to explore the impact fairytale twists have had on gender representation. This was fuelled by my thoughts on my own debut picture book, Pumpkin’s Fairytale, which was illustrated by Wayne Oram and released by indie publisher Final Chapter in 2021. Although I am immensely proud of the text, gender representation is something I could have addressed and yet didn’t. Why couldn’t I have had a female farmer or a male witch? Although I’d twisted the original story, I’d unintentionally upheld particular stereotypes. This is something I now consider more carefully.

Tracy's favourite childhood fairytales (top) and her own 
twisted tale, Pumpkin's fairytale, illustrated by Wayne Oram 


Research on this topic was fascinating. To summarise my findings, there are now an amazing array of original stories out there with ‘feisty feminine leads’, (a term I hear often), daring princesses and sensitive boys who can discuss their emotions. However, fairytales are considered particularly effective in challenging gender stereotypes because they provide us with a familiar reference which shows us how far society has evolved.


Let’s take some examples. Most adults and possibly some children will be familiar with Rapunzel, the story where a princess is rescued from a tower by a prince. However, in the picture book Rapunzel to the Rescue by Lucy Rowland and Katy Halford, it is a prince with a very long beard who is locked up in the tower and Rapunzel is the smart, poor villager who rescues him. In Don’t Mess With a Princess, by Rachel Valentine and Rebecca Bagley, three princess sisters defy their father’s orders and help the terrified knights hunt down a fierce ogre.

 Both of these picture books challenge the role of traditional princesses

In the YA novel Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron the author makes sure readers know the original fairytale of Cinderella before exposing the flaws in it right before our very eyes. In the novel, the law states that every girl in the kingdom has only three chances to attend the king’s annual ball and find a husband before being forfeit. This leaves the protagonist, Sophia, with the job of uncovering the truth of the original story and bringing down the tyrannical and misogynist rule of the king.


Cinderella is Dead explores the flaws of the original story

Finally in Gender Swapped Fairy Tales, aimed at an MG audience, Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Brackett used a unique algorithm to simply swap all names, pronouns and gendered language in Andrew Lang and Nora Lang’s renowned Fairy Books. This proved to be a powerful and effective way of exposing gender stereotypes but it wasn’t without criticism. Some felt that categorising ‘male’ and ‘female’ as the only two possible genders is no longer relevant to today’s society. 

However, with the publication of books such as A Fairytale for Everyone by Boldizsár M Nagy and Lilla Bölecz it surely proves the point that fairytales are much-loved, culturally important stories that have the capacity to evolve time and time again in order to reflect and challenge our values.

Gender Swapped Fairy Tales was a unique experiment

Moving forward, therefore, gender representation is definitely something for a writer to bear in mind, whether penning a fairytale twist or not. Stereotyping can be done unintentionally but, with some clever thinking, our writing can help to empower and embolden the next generation.


*Header image: Tita Berredo; fairytale illo by Nora Racz;
all other images courtesy of Tracy Curran.


Tracy Curran is Production Editor for Words & Pictures and enjoys writing picture books, young fiction and lower middle grade novels. Known as Little Cornish Writer, you can find her on InstagramTwitter and Facebook

She also enjoys reviewing children's books on her blog The Breadcrumb Forest.


Francoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org

Tita Berredo is Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI British Isles and Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org

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