Writing Dark Fairy Tales for Middle Grade
Growing up, I was a voracious reader. I loved nothing more than wandering through a strange new world full of magic and fantastical creatures. Needless to say, fairy tales were a constant staple of my literary diet. So, it isn’t surprising that my own books tend to remind readers of fairy tales, and I’m often told that they have the feel of those classics. And I’m not alone — many authors in recent years are writing retellings and original stories in the same vein.
But fairy tales don’t just mean the light and airy versions where everyone gets a happily ever after and the story is tied up neatly with a big bow. My favorite kind to read and write are more like the classic Brothers Grimm — darker, and filled with mystery, magic, and mayhem. If you’re considering writing an original fairy tale or retelling of your own for middle grade readers and prefer the darker variation too, here’s some food for thought:
- Consider your audience. Middle grade readers can often handle more than you might think, but it’s important to strike a balance. For example, sometimes fairy tales can be violent. But often that can be taken off the page. There are ways to make the darkness accessible without dumbing down the story or Disneyfying it by any means. And since these stories are clearly unrealistic, they are often more likely to provide chills and thrills than terrify. Also, middle grade spans ages 8-14, which means there’s a wide breadth of child development happening in those years, so consider whether your book will be geared toward the lower end of the spectrum or the upper end, as that can inform how much darkness you incorporate into the story and what kind.
- Do your research. There’s a wealth of source material available to use for inspiration whether you’re crafting your own original fairy tale or writing a retelling. Read them, seek out the original Grimm tales, and all the various incarnations of them until you find the ones that resonate with you the most. Some stories have hundreds of versions (I’m looking at you, Cinderella!) and the directions they take may surprise and inspire you.
- Death. Yes, you can kill off characters in middle grade, even beloved ones. (You don’t *have* to, obviously, but if it’s important to the story, don’t feel you have to shy away from it.) Death plays a role in fairy tales, especially the darker variety, but the wonderful thing about books is that the format allows readers to process those difficult emotions in a safe way. Fairy tales approach the things that terrify us in a manner that provides a safe space to examine those frightening scenarios. If it’s too much, the reader can close the book and pick it up again another day.
- Don’t forget hope. This was the most important lesson I learned when going through the editorial process with my first published book. It’s easy to get caught up and keep spiraling down a darker and darker path when writing fairy tales, but it’s particularly important for middle grade to leave the reader with hope. It’s important for the readers to see that even the small and overlooked can be heroes, and even the scariest monsters can be overcome. However, this does not mean it’s necessary to tie everything up in a neat little bow and give everyone a happy ending. But there does need to be a ray of light, some indication that the story world is a better place than it was before and that the future will be brighter too.
Whether you decide to go the darker or more light-hearted route with your story, fairy tales are a fantastic source of inspiration and their recognizable themes and motifs can lend your book deeper meaning that will resonate with readers. Happy writing!