Sunday, May 18, 2014

New life for old stories: 3 that have been done to death – and why you should write them anyway.


Searching for new ideas?  Give it up.  There are no new stories… as it says in the book of Ecclesiastes, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” 

But don’t let that worry you.  Here are three books that have been written over and over and over… but which will always be fresh and interesting, with just a little spin.

Robert Munsch's The Paperbag Princess Cinderella – Sure, new twists on old fairytales have been done many times. That’s because these stories resonate with adults, with kids… with the inner princess inside all of us.

  • · Where could this story take place? Not in a castle, and not with an actual princess, unless you are a very clever artist with a fabulous new technique that will make the concept shine (check out Lauren Child’s Princess and the Pea for a modern style that makes this old tale pop). Two ways you can “disguise” your Cinderella story including making it super-realistic, and making it completely otherworldly.

Lauren Child's Princess and the Pea

  • · Who could the main character be? Probably not a princess, or a poor little rich girl. What about making the main character a boy? Don’t just flip all the genders (giving him an evil stepfather), but mix up the characters in his life so he’s just unloved enough, just enough in need of “magic” (literal or figurative) to fix the problems in his life.
  • · Why do kids love it so much? Because it’s familiar. When the TV show Blue’s Clues first deputed, its creators were planning to air a new and different show each day, as with most TV shows… until they discovered that kids adored watching the EXACT same show every day, all week. By the end of the week, they were cheering along, talking to the TV show, knowing the answers to the same riddles they’d heard all week. The world is so unpredictable to young children that they are both reassured and comforted to find themselves in familiar territory. Of course, that also means you need to be careful when you’re messing with classic stories. A good age for “twisted” tales is 6-year-olds, who think of themselves as too sophisticated for the “basic” fairy tales, and old enough to get the jokes of the updated versions, such as Jon Sciezka’s Stinky Cheese Man.

Jon Sciezka's The Stinky Cheese Man

  • · Alternate endings: among many authors trying to set the classical fairytale genre on its head, Robert Munsch created a bit of a stir with his Paper Bag Princess, in which the princess, Elizabeth, goes from outright admiration of Prince Ronald at the beginning of the book to disgust at the end (“You are a bum!”).

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis The Karate Kid – Okay, if you’ve studied writing and/or classical mythology, you may recognize this one as the Hero’s Journey archetype, as described by Joseph Campbell. See this post for more on how the Karate Kid follows the classic stages of the hero’s journey, from Ordinary World to Freedom, with the help of his Supernatural Aid, Mr. Miyagi.

  • · Where could this story take place? Anywhere! Forget the dojo – that’s been done already. But anywhere you’d find a kid (or animal) who’s a fish out of water is a perfect main character for this story. In an urban setting, the challenges might be social, but don’t limit yourself – set it in the countryside, or even another time in history – or the future.
  • · Who could the main character be? Well, if you’re writing about a fish out of water, you could think about making the main character an actual fish (just don’t leave him out of water too long). In an animal story, think about the Ugly Duckling – he just doesn’t belong, not because there’s anything wrong with him, but because he’s stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • · Why do kids love it so much? Because every kid, deep down inside, feels like a fish out of water. Showing you understand this will make them love your story, too (more on using the Hero’s Journey to create a children’s picture book).
  • · Alternate endings: Since this is such a classic archetype, you don’t want to mess with the formula too much, but don’t feel like you have to create a pat, happy ending. Sure, you’ll need to tie up loose ends and help your main character accomplish his story goal. But that doesn’t necessarily mean giving him everything he wants (in many stories of this type, like the Narnia books or The Wizard of Oz, the hero has to leave the magical world at the end of the story). If there’s something missing from his perfection at the end of the book, you could have a lovely bittersweet ending – or even the makings of a terrific sequel!

Leo Lionni's Frederick The Ant & the Grasshopper – This is one of the best-known Aesop’s Fables for a reason. All summer long, the ant is busy, busy, busy, working hard and getting ready for winter. Meanwhile, the grasshopper sings so prettily – until winter comes and she is about to starve to death.

  • · Where could this story take place? Anywhere. Don’t just think about fields and grain.
  • · Who could the main character be? Either the ant or the grasshopper… play with it, and don’t get moralistic. Maybe the “grasshopper” has a great reason for not saving grain. Or perhaps the “ant,” for all her terrific planning, comes up short somehow.
  • · Why do kids love it so much? Because every child develops a strong sense of what’s fair and what isn’t very early on in life, and this is a theme kids come back to over and over. In their own lives, of course, but they love seeing it echoed in stories.
  • · Alternate endings: In some versions, especially the more moralistic versions from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the ant lets the grasshopper starve to death. The ants simply cannot risk the lives of the other ants… and starvation is the natural consequence of the grasshopper’s foolish decisions. Modern versions are more compassionate: Leo Lionni created the classic twist on this tale in Frederick, in which the flighty, dreamy mouse who has spent the summer saving up colours turns out to be the salvation of all the other bored mice during the grey, colourless winter.

I’m not telling you you HAVE to write about one of these three themes. But I am giving you permission – even though they’ve been covered time and time again. I don’t think there will ever come a time when a great writer can’t delight kids with one of these 3 classic stories.

If you’re still not sure what to write, here’s a “Story Spinner,” from Scholastic that will help you create a quick pitch for an adventure story. Here’s what it assigned me to write on my first 3 spins:

  • · Write a travelog for a scatterbrained weightlifter whose boat oars fall into a raging river.
  • · List five qualities of an independent musician who is a stowaway on a submarine.
  • · Write a journal entry about a humble explorer who blasts tunnels underground.

Hmm… try it if you like, but I think I’ll stick with Cinderella.

Have you come across a great “remix” of one of these classic stories???  Share it here!

[image credit:  Mehdinom, via Wikimedia]


  1. I enjoy reading your posts. You give really good advice.

  2. Thanks, Valerie! I really appreciate your stopping by.


As always, I love to hear from you.