Whether it was through stories read to us at bedtime or from a classic Disney film we watched a thousand times, everyone has a favourite fairy tale.
Perhaps it’s Cinderella, with her magical glass slippers, or Hansel and Gretel’s run-in with a cannibalistic witch and her house made of sweets, or maybe you loved it when Little Red Riding Hood bested the big bad wolf?
For thousands of years, fairy tales have been passed down from generation to generation. They’ve been danced to, sung about or in the case of any Disney blockbuster, turned into multimillion dollar films.
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While many came about simply because there wasn’t much as to do, just as many were made up in order to force naughty children to behave (admit it, you were terrified of being turned into a pie when you were young!).
In honour of National Tell A Fairy Tale Day (26 February) we’ve reviewed some of the best fairy tale collections on bookshelves right now so you can delve back into your childhood or discover a brand-new story.
We looked for tomes that included a wide variety of tales and particularly focused on collections that included stories from around the world and that are often overlooked. We’ve tried to find books that have something for all ages as well. Finally, these books had to be beautifully designed.
It’s time to pull out a blanket and snuggle up with tales of princes and princesses, magical creatures, evil villains and worlds plucked straight for our imaginations.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
‘Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales’ by Angela Carter, published by Virago
It wouldn’t be a round-up if we didn’t mention something the queen of feminist fairy tales herself, Angela Carter. Of course you’ll have likely heard ofThe Bloody Chamber (which we decided not to include here as it’s so well known), but another wonderful offering from the author is Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. This collection features tales about all sorts of women, from crafty deviants to maidens who aren’t quite damsels-in-distress, and compiles stories from all parts of the globe.
The book itself, which is beautifully illustrated with woodcuts created by Corinna Sargood, has been split up into 13 sections that deal with certain themes: “Good girls and where it gets them”; “Married women”; and “Clever women, resourceful girls and desperate stratagems” are a few. These tales are often gory and include a lot of adult humour – it’s probably best to not give this to anyone younger than 13 years old.
Buy now £12.99, Waterstones.com
‘Nordic Tales’ illustrated by Ulla Thynell, published by Chronicle Books
This beautiful anthology compiles 16 traditional folktales from across Scandinavia that were originally written down between the late 19th and early 20th century. Tales of elves, dragons and scheming foxes have been brought to life by Finnish artist Ulla Thynell’s illustrations, which are whimsical and fantastical.
Our reviewer’s favourite story was about a young boy who tries to outsmart Death. It is worth nothing that some of the stories are quite dated: one girl literally has to prove her worthiness to marry a prince by washing stains from a shirt – it won’t be passing the Bechdel test anytime soon! However, this is still a wonderful book for all ages. Nordic Tales is actually part of a series, which also include tales from all over the world.
Buy now £17.65, Bookshop.org
‘The Complete Fairy Tales’ by Brothers Grimm, published by Vintage
It is the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm we all know and love – you won’t find any squeaky-clean Disney versions here… This monster of a book, coming in at a hefty 1,000 pages, includes classic stories such as Snow White, The Princess and the Pea and Rumpelstiltskin. It also includes more obscure stories, all of which were collected by brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century. Although not unknown, our reviewer’s favourite was Bluebeard, the story of a rich nobleman whose previous six wives have all gone missing.
These stories are quite violent – the evil stepmother in Snow White is made to dance to death wearing iron shoes over a bed of coals and the stepsisters in Cinderella amputate their toes to try and fit into the glass slipper. This collection isn’t suitable for younger children but if you were to read as a bedtime story you just could just skip any undesirable parts.
Buy now £8.71, Amazon.co.uk
‘Favourite African Folktales’ edited by Nelson Mandela, published by Norton
If you’re looking for stories that have been overshadowed by western classics, then Nelson Mandela’s Favourite African Folktales is a wonderful addition to any bookshelf. Published in 2004, the anti-apartheid leader gathers his favourite ones from across the African continent in the hope that more children will discover new tales. Many of the stories date back to ancient times, their words passed down for millennia.
There are plenty of mythical beasts to be found in its pages, as well as cunning and magical animals. Other stories serve as “origin” tales, such as how the first house cats were tamed. Our reviewer’s favourite was Mmutla and Phiri, a hyena and a hare who start playing with fire to prove they are the cleverest animal in the land.
Buy now £9.26, Blackwells.co.uk
‘Gender Swapped Fairy Tales’ by Jonathan Plackett and Karrie Fransman
It’s no secret that fairy tales have a sexism problem, which is where this genius book comes in. Gender Swapped Fairy Tales, as you may have gathered from the title, takes stories originally published by Scottish poet Andrew Lang between 1889 and 1913 and changes the genders. Co-author Jonathan Plackett designed an algorithm which swaps any gendered language found in the text, and the results are brilliant. Sleeping Beauty becomes Sleeping Handsome; Mr Rapunzel has a golden beard instead of golden hair; Handsome is imprisoned by the (now female) beast. Women are now strong heroines, while the men stay at home sewing and waiting for a woman to save them.
The commentary the book makes isn’t in your face but the point is really obvious: fairy tales are rife with problematic, and sometimes even bizarre, tropes which have been taught to children for centuries. This is a wonderful collection and a great teaching point as well. The beautiful illustrations by co-author Karrie Fransman also bring the concept to life.
Buy now £20.00, Waterstones.com
‘Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland’ by Lisa Schneidau, published by The History Press
Flora and fauna are a staple of fairy tales, from poisonous plants to forests covered in thorns. In this wonderful little book, written by ecologist and storyteller Lisa Schneidau, stories and tales from the UK’s rich history of plant folklore have been collected. Tales have been divided into five phases of the seasonal calendar, from midwinter all the way through to autumn, mimicking nature’s life cycle.
Even if you don’t have an innate interest in botany or ecology, Botanical Folk Tales is a very intriguing look at the way plants are part of our heritage. Some well-known stories, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, have been included but the majority haven’t made their way into mainstream lore. This is a wonderful collection suitable for all ages and filled with pretty florals too.
Buy now £7.99, Blackwells.co.uk
The verdict: Fairytales
While we’d recommend every collection in this round-up, Angela Carter’s Book Of Fairy Tales stands out among them. The diversity of this book is unmatched by the rest; every part of the planet has some sort of representation in this book.
The writing is also often very humorous and cynical, both poking fun and celebrating the myriad of women found in fairy tales. If you’re looking for something completely different, we’d recommend Favourite African Folktales as very few of these have made their way westward and the book itself draws on a rich history of storytelling.
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