Making Sure the Glass Slipper Fits: Tracy Barrett on Fairy Tale Retellings

Retelling a classic fairy tale can be rather daunting, especially when it's a tale as timeless and beloved as Cinderella. But Tracy Barrett knocked her retelling out of the park with The Stepsister's Tale, an enchanting story that takes a closer look at the stepsisters' side of Cinderella's story. Today, Tracy shares her thoughts on her new book and what she did in order to make her retelling as compelling as possible.

Cover of The Stepsister's Tale by Tracy BarrettSay you know a teenage girl whose widowed father marries a woman with two daughters. The girl and her father move in with the stepfamily. If the girl told you that she had to do all the work and that her stepmother was mean to her and her stepsisters were ugly and bossy, wouldn’t you tell her that stepfamilies take some adjustment, and wouldn’t you suspect that maybe there’s another side to the story?

This was the spark for The Stepsister’s Tale. Jane, the older of Cinderella’s stepsisters, tells of living in grinding poverty with a mother who is in denial that they are no longer the wealthy, high-living family of her girlhood. Jane and her sister do all the work, and when the beautiful and spoiled Isabella reacts with indignation at the suggestion that she pitch in, conflict erupts.

What makes fairy tales so ripe for retelling is that almost always, we rarely know why characters behave the way they do. And characters in fairy tales hardly ever show growth: Cinderella starts out good and sweet and beautiful, and at the end she’s still good and sweet and beautiful. The stepsisters start out as selfish bullies (for no particular reason), and at the end they’re still selfish bullies. The author of a retelling has to not only figure out why these fairy tale people act they way they do, but also show them grow and change.

There are, of course, challenges in retelling a story as beloved as the fairy tale of Cinderella. It’s such a powerful tale and resonates so deeply in our culture. I’m not immune to that resonance, of course, and while writing I constantly had to guard against letting Isabella (my Cinderella character) take over the story. I kept reminding myself that this is not the story of Cinderella from Jane’s point of view — it’s Jane’s story. Cinderella has already had her turn! Jane has to have as rich an inner life as any other character, with her own desires, insecurities, path in life, loves, doubts — everything that makes up a human being or a fleshed-out literary character.

Episodes in the fairy tale that are crucial to Cinderella’s story had to appear in my story as well, but they don’t always have the same importance as we’re used to, since what matters to Isabella doesn’t necessarily matter to Jane. It was sometimes difficult, but always interesting, to try to imagine what “really” happened (in the reality of my story, of course) that Isabella’s insecurities could twist into a slight or an insult.

I worried that readers might be turned off by seeing their beloved Cinderella in a different (and not so flattering) light. Although Isabella isn’t sympathetic, I didn’t want to make her monstrous or evil. She too had to have reasons for behaving the way she did, and I hope those reasons make her sympathetic enough not to alienate her fan base!

For me, a book starts when I ask myself, “Why?” In this case, “Why did the stepsisters treat Cinderella so badly? Come to think of it, why do we believe that they did treat her badly?” Fairy tales are full of those questions! Why does Rumpelstiltskin demand a gold ring as payment when he could just spin one out of gold? Why is beauty so dangerous to Snow White? Why do those twelve princesses sneak out to go dancing — why not just throw a party? Figuring out the answers can lead to some surprising stories!

-Tracy Barrett

The Stepsister's Tale is available in-stores and online, so be sure to pick up your copy today! And for more authors, books and insights, visit our Everything YA page.