Trigger Warnings for Geekerella : Moderately strong language, emotional abuse
Trigger Warnings for Cinderella is Dead : Animal death, abusive relationships, homophobia, misogyny, some violence
Inspired by Kalynn Bayron’s debut novel, Cinderella is Dead (Bloomsbury YA, 2020), a fantastic young adult reimagining of the classic fairy tale set two hundred years after the titular heroine’s demise, we wanted to take a look at another fabulous retelling in Ashley Poston’s young adult contemporary romance, Geekerella (Quirk Books, 2017). Join us for a chat on these two wonderful novels, some of our other favorite retellings, and more!
Note: The following roundtable conversation was recorded and then transcribed. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Hannah Miller: Just to kick things off, since we’re going to be talking about this topic in-depth, what are some of your favorite retellings? These don’t have to be just YA books; they can also be films or TV series. (Obviously, excluding the two phenomenal novels that today’s talk centers around.)
Wendy Waltrip: I’m named after Wendy in Peter Pan, so I have grown up with the Peter Pan story and have lots of favorite retellings for that. My favorite, favorite, favorite retelling of that story is the Peter and the Starcatchers series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. I love that series and also got to be in the play for that, which was amazing. I also absolutely love the A Twisted Tale series by Liz Braswell. A couple other authors write for that as well, such as Elizabeth Lim and Jen Calonita. That series is so amazing! They’re so good, and they blow my mind every time I read one of these books because of the way the story is twisted. There’s also Roseblood by A.G. Howard, which is a Phantom of the Opera retelling and really, really good. Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon is also really good. It’s a Beauty and the Beast retelling set at a boarding school, and I loved it. Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas is another Cinderella retelling that was good, and I loved, loved, loved Oliva Twist, which is a retelling/continuation of Oliver Twist, but if Oliver was a girl in disguise. As far as film versions, the live-action Peter Pan with Jeremey Sumpter as Peter is absolutely amazing and one of my favorite movies ever. Then, there’s fun Shakespeare retellings, like She’s the Man, which is a retelling of Twelfth Night. That’s my favorite Shakespeare retelling. I could go on and on all day, but those are just some of my favorite retellings.
Jackie Balbastro: I don’t think I’ve read any retellings that I really love. One I can think of is Peter and the Starcatchers. I saw it in my senior year at the International Thespian Festival, and I absolutely fell in love. I didn’t even know there was a book! I really love musicals, so Into the Woods is definitely a fun one. Have you guys ever seen the ABC show Once Upon a Time?
WW: No, but I always wanted to watch it.
JB: I lived and breathed that show to the very end. Another Shakespeare retelling is Ten Things I Hate About You, and I love that movie.
HM: I absolutely love Kiersten White. She does a lot of children’s and young adult retellings, and she’s really great at it! I adore her YA series called The Conqueror’s Saga, which is a genderbent retelling of Vlad the Impaler. I just love the protagonist, Lada. She’s so monstrous and chaotic and kick-butt, and the trilogy is just phenomenal. It reads like fantasy, but it’s historical fiction. Another one by Kiersten White is The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. I love the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Kiersten White retells it from Elizabeth’s point of view. She’s kind of a cardboard cut-out of a character in the original story, and really just serves as Victor’s love interest, but we get to see a lot more of who she is, what motivates her, and so on, in this version. If I had to pick a TV show: I love Penny Dreadful. It’s a remix of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and other gothic stories. Again, it’s really phenomenal. If you like horror, I would definitely recommend it. It is really scary and graphic, though, so be aware of that. (Not a children’s show for sure!)
Okay, so next question. Retellings are a trend that never seems to fade in popularity; arguably, because everything is a reimagining of something else in one way or another. Though, when it comes to more explicit retellings of classic fairy tales and folklore—seen in such titles as the ones we are discussing today—why do you think this medium of storytelling remains so prevalent, particularly in children’s and young adult literature? In short, what is so appealing about the retelling for both authors and readers?
WW: I think one of the things for me that is so appealing when I read these is because I already know the story, so I’m able to focus less on that aspect of it and more on the changes. And the changes are what really draw me in: what exactly is different from the original story and also how you’re able to follow the original storyline. Like, Cinderella has been told so many times and in so many different ways, but knowing what’s going to happen to a certain extent is what I love about it. And I think that kind of goes for authors as well. I think it would be fun to take something that’s so familiar and so well-known and twist it in a way that hasn’t been done before. So I think that’s why it’s so prevalent, and in children’s and YA lit, sometimes I feel like you can kind of experiment a little bit more with certain things in YA than in other genres or adult literature. Plus, fairy tales seem to originally be told a lot of time to children, so taking something that maybe children are more familiar with than adults and twisting it so that they can relate to it at that point instead of later in life might be another reason as well.
HM: Yeah, I think that when we think about fairy tales specifically, many of our minds probably immediately go to Disney because they kind of have a monopoly on fairy tales and fairy tale retellings; and, obviously, Disney products are very much marketed at children and the nuclear family unit. So I think that’s also maybe why we see a lot of fairy tale retellings particularly in children’s and YA literature: we already associate fairy tales with a younger demographic because Disney is this huge company widely known for doing just that.
JB: I agree with both of you. There’s a nostalgia connected to it, but there’s also, I think, something so appealing about being able to connect with works from so long ago that span across cultures because everyone can draw connections to it. Like we talked about on the Pine Reads podcast recently, connecting with your ancestors is such a thing that draws people. We want to know about our past; we want to know about history. Fairy tales are not necessarily history, but they’re part of our upbringing. I think what makes it a mainstay in children’s literature and YA is that, like what Wendy was saying, we want to retell these stories because we’ve been told them so many times. We want to retell them in a way that connects to us. I think having something so simple and pristine and perfect that wraps up in that fairy tale ending is what makes people love it so much because we’re fascinated with magic. We sort of enchant ourselves into thinking that these very dark Grimm fairy tales are exactly like the Disney version. They’ve definitely become like a comfort.
HM: Yeah! Especially if it’s a fairy tale or a story you love, you can kind of show that admiration by retelling it for future generations. It’s a way of passing that on in a new form so that every child, regardless of when they’re born, will definitely know who Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood is. However, with those two stories as prime examples, it does end up being mostly Euro-centric fairy tales that are retold in mainstream Western media, which we have to be aware of, but I think the point still stands.
Okay, so there’s not necessarily an “original” version of Cinderella; instead, multiple iterations exist across time and cultures. There’s one, for instance, called “Donkey Skin” that, within fairy tale circles, is referred to as the “other Cinderella story.” So maybe it would be pertinent and beneficial for us to briefly summarize both of these books and kind of situate their plot next to some of the versions of Cinderella that we know.
WW: Geekerella takes the Cinderella story we know and modernizes it and places it within a Con setting. It also “geeks” it up, which is really fun. In this book, we follow Elle Wittimer, on one side, who is a major fan of the TV series Starfield. She used to love watching it with her dad, and she knows everything about it, and she even has her own blog where she writes about it. But unfortunately, her dad has died, and he founded this Con called ExcelsiCon, and they used to go to it every year. But now Elle is living with her “evil” stepmother and stepsisters, and nothing is like it used to be. She has trouble even finding time to watch Starfield, and it’s not the same without her dad. On the other side, we have Darien Freeman who is a famous teen actor, and he has just been cast as the lead in the new Starfield movie that’s coming out. And the fans kind of go crazy thinking that he knows nothing about it and is just this teen heartthrob who was only cast in the role because he’s cute or whatever. But Darien is actually a major fan of the series as well. When he and Elle meet anonymously over texting, they begin to get to know each other that way and realize that they have more in common than they thought, but they don’t know who each other are. Also, Elle is one of the loudest voices against Darien, not knowing that he’s the one on the other side of the texts. So everything comes to a head when they both end up at the ExcelsiCon and have to meet each other.
JB: Cinderella is Dead is a sapphic deconstruction of the Cinderella tale set two hundred years after the original Cinderella has died. And Cinderella has kind of become an example of who women need to be in this kingdom known as Mersailles. The main character, Sophia, does not want to fall into the system of going to the mandatory ball and being picked by a man. Every woman in town goes through the system of going to the ball when they turn sixteen and spending their whole life savings and their family has to give up everything to make them look like how Cinderella was perceived in the story. Sophia says, “Absolutely not. I don’t even like guys. I just want to be with my best friend Erin.” But Erin is like, “No. I just want to follow the rules.” So Sophia goes on this long journey to dethrone the king and burn down the system. I absolutely loved it.
HM: When it comes to the story of Cinderella, which aspects of this fairy tale were you excited to see in both Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron and Geekerella by Ashley Poston?
WW: For Geekerella, I remember as I was reading it having so much fun finding the little moments that have to do with the original fairy tale, like having Elle being driven to the Con in the Magic Pumpkin food truck, which is a really fun little thing. Then, when they’re running away at the end, I knew what was going to happen, and that was so much fun for me to then see her run away from the ExcelsiCon Ball and know that Darien is going to come after her and that he’s going to have to go through her stepsisters first because that’s what happens in the story we all know. Because the story is so modernized, it’s not super close to the original Cinderella story, but finding the little Easter Eggs, like “Oh, that’s why she did that!” was really fun for me.
As for Cinderella is Dead, because it takes place two hundred years after Cinderella’s death, I felt like it wasn’t so much a retelling of Cinderella as it was a continuation of the Cinderella story. But in this one, there were still a couple things, like when she gets her dress for the ball at the end from the fairy godmother and the tree, and that had elements of remembering the original story. And how midnight was really important at the end of the book, and obviously that was on purpose and she mentioned that in the book as well with Sophia recognizing the similarities, but it was kind of a cool thing. Knowing that Sophia knew the story was fun to follow along with her and see how she was relating her own journey to Cinderella’s story.
JB: I read Geekerella back in 2018, and it was actually one of the first books I jumped into when I really started reading YA. I was in the phase of reading these geek girl stories, and I was like, “Yes! A Cinderella retelling at a Con!” I was ecstatic. And just opening the book again to refresh on the characters and everything, I still love this book so much because it has a dual narrative, and it meets the beats of the Cinderella story really well. I loved Sage, who works in the food truck with her. I really loved the fact that Geekerella takes the story we know, and it kind of gives more depth to the prince character. Darien himself is seen as this guy who is cast in the movie and doesn’t really know anything, but actually, he’s really in-tune with the fandom, and him and Elle connect on that. And I love the fact that Elle makes her dress herself and that she is such a nerd and that she wants to fulfill this dream for her father. That father-daughter connection is really strong in this book, and it sometimes isn’t in different versions of this story.
We see another type of father-daughter relationship in Cinderella is Dead where it’s called out with the father’s complacency. Even though the story takes place two hundred years later, the men in the kingdom benefit from all the rules set in place for the women. Cinderella’s story is a part of the rules of the kingdom, so everyone has to adhere to Cinderella’s standard. They have to go to a ball every year and make themselves seem like they were visited by a fairy godmother. They have to have a curfew, they have to do all these things. And I feel like Cinderella is Dead is not so much a retelling as it is a deconstruction of the story we know. I absolutely loved it. I don’t know what Kalynn Bayron can do to make this story keep going, but I want so much more. I want her to retell every book ever written. I just love it so much.
HM: Talking about Cinderella is Dead specifically, this book has been pitched as a retelling or deconstruction of Cinderella where Black queer girls destroy the patriarchy (which sounds awesome). Since fairy tales are nowhere near perfect when it comes to representations of race, gender, and sexuality (especially when we look at Disney-fied versions), how does retelling Cinderella from this perspective combat stereotypes of the genre? In other words, how can fairy tales become vehicles for resistance?
JB: What’s interesting is that we all connect fairy tales to Disney. And because of that imagery, we all see these princess-type characters as white, blonde women. But technically, these stories don’t belong to anybody, and you can connect with them and see yourself in them. Like, with Cinderella, the part of her I always connected to was the fact that she was such a kind person despite what was thrown at her. I feel like we still keep that in Geekerella and Cinderella is Dead because these characters are resistant. Even though princesses are given a bad reputation, they’re resistant already, and we just push that further now. Even with Cinderella is Dead, we get very headstrong, very supportive women supporting women and just fighting for all female rights. I just love the fact that even though some of the girls don’t realize they’re in abusive situations or they’re allowing it to happen because it’s like be abused or die, they kind of band together, and I feel like that’s something that is so needed, especially with young women. In Cinderella is Dead, they get with really old guys, and it’s disgusting. With young women especially, if they’re reading this, they’ll come to realize that maybe their own relationships are unhealthy. Just the nuances of approaching certain things that young girls and even young men might not realize they are dealing with in the frame of a fairy tale is really just enticing. I think that what I love about this book especially is that within the first few pages, we have Sophia meet a fellow outcast who’s gay, and he just wants to protect Sophia and let her know, “I will make a life with you just so we can get out of here.” And it’s so beautiful. I love the fact that this story takes everything we know about Cinderella, and is like, “Nope, nope, nope. We don’t want any of that.” It basically takes the Cinderella story, picks it up, and throws it in the trash. And even though I love Cinderella, I’m okay with that.
WW: I feel like the way this kingdom is run in this book shows how these toxic and abusive relationships can be normalized and how that is not good. At the end, even after everything…happens, some of the women still have trouble switching what they believe, even after going through everything they’ve gone through in their relationships. And I think it just shows how harmful that can be and how women are put down so much. Even the Disney princesses—they’re so rebellious, but they come with this stereotype of a “princess,” and I feel like they have to fight even harder to get their voices heard. In this one, that’s kind of what Sophia has to do as well. I feel like it shows that because her being queer is such a concept that nobody in that society understands, even when she comes out to her parents at twelve. They don’t even talk about it, and they don’t like to mention it at all, and they pretend that that’s not actually who she is. Even Erin, who has reciprocated feelings for Sophia, she refuses to follow through on it because she just wants to make her parents proud and find a good husband, even though deep down that’s not what she wants. So I think it definitely shows that Sophia knows from the very beginning that this is wrong, and she’s trying everything she can, but even she goes along with it. Even though Luke is absolutely amazing and just wants to protect them, Sophia is still just going to marry a man to protect herself. So I think that shows something about how that society understands and thinks about women. They have this one box that women go in in their head, and if they don’t fit in that box, they don’t survive. And people don’t understand that women can be things other than that little box, which is what they think of as Cinderella.
Reading this book made me realize that race is not specified in any of the original fairy tales, as far as I know. The cover of this has Sophia as Black, so I went into it knowing that, but if I hadn’t even seen the cover, I wouldn’t have known her race at all for a couple chapters until she described it, and it made me realize that the same can be true if we flip that. Why is Cinderella white? What does that have to do with any part of the plot? So I feel like that definitely gave me that idea in my mind, the why not. Why can’t she be queer? Why can’t she be Black? And I feel like we need to look at all the rest of the fairy tales and deconstruct them all from that kind of angle as well.
HM: Yes! We need more representation in fairy tales, and we also need more storytellers who are people of color, who are queer, who are disabled, and so on, telling these stories. I also feel like, because we usually know one version of the story before we read or watch these retellings, we expect that these characters have to go along with that narrative. And it seems like especially in Cinderella is Dead, these characters are saying, “I actually don’t have to go along with any of this. I can take a left turn and write my own story. I don’t have to go along with the typical arc that is known as ‘Cinderella’s story.’ I can resist that.” So, maybe just in retelling a story, you are resisting. You’re resisting whatever narrative has been told before by writing your own version.
Now, when it comes to Geekerella —which, from the title alone, presents a fantastic celebration of nerd culture—how does this story interweave ideas of fandom and fairy tale together?
JB: With this story, I really liked the fact that I am a spectator of the narrative, which is geeky in and of itself, but I’m also a fan of Cinderella, so I’m geeking out over her geeking out about Starfield, so it’s part hinting at what happens in Cinderella and part hinting at what happens in Star Wars and Star Trek, and I’m like, “Yes. Give me more of this!” It’s just so fun to pinpoint what’s a callback to something. I appreciate that at the time I was reading this, I was convinced I was going to be a cosplayer, so I was so in love with the fact that she dressed up and that it was her father’s whole conception of the Con that made her want to do it even more. And they do confront the fact that Darien is not the typical fan because so many times we see girls get called out, like, “Oh, do you really like that?” So that was really fun. And I just really like the fact that Ashley Poston did it in a way that was modernized enough but not too much.
HM: Would you say that the celebrity culture in Geekerella is a critique or a play on royalty in previous versions of Cinderella? Do you think that that’s connected?
WW: Yes, I do. I love the fact that yes, in celebrity culture, we uphold these people, and they are kind of royalty to us. Like, if I ever met somebody like Emma Watson in person, I would probably, like, bow down. I love Emma Watson. But yeah, having a fan of the series or a “commoner” meet and, especially in Geekerella, interact anonymously with this celebrity prince balances power. We’re able to see how somebody who maybe has a little more power for some reason in our world and someone who is considered “normal” are able to interact together and be together, and that’s just a really cool thing. And I think it gives a voice to all of us if we’ve ever had celebrity crushes. But yeah, it definitely is a lot like the royalty aspect of it. And Cinderella in the story that we know, she has only heard of the prince and knows of him and has never met him—depending on the version—and Darien is somebody that Elle has only heard of and is writing about in her blog, so that definitely has that same kind of attitude about it.
I feel like some of the magic was still there, like with the ball at ExcelsiCon at the end, that magical aspect was very strong in it. And I think it’s great how Elle and Darien, when they finally meet in person, don’t like each other at first. Because in the Disney Cinderella story, Cinderella and the prince fall in love at first sight, and in this one, it’s not that at all. And I think that’s really fun and was a fun addition to the plot. I think that was able to come about because of the fandom idea as well.
HM: Okay, just because I’m super curious, who is your favorite character and what is the most memorable scene from both Cinderella is Dead and Geekerella?
WW: So, I tend to pick the main characters for my favorite characters in things. It’s just really hard. I love Elle, I love Darien, I love Sage, I love Cal. I loved them all. I think I have to pick Elle just because I feel like I related to her. But, I’m just such a big stan of dual narratives, so I loved Darien also, so…both of them. All of them. All of the above. And as far as the most memorable scene…probably the ball at the end. It was just a really fun scene, but I loved the whole book.
And for Cinderella is Dead…there are so many good scenes! Probably the most memorable scene is also the ending just because there was a whole lot going on in that scene. It pulled all the characters together, which I always love when that happens at the end of books, and it just kept throwing more twists at you, and it was amazing, and I loved it. And my favorite character… I don’t know. This is another hard one because I loved a lot of them. Probably Sophia because I felt like I really related to her, but I also really loved Constance. And then Amina was just a fun character. But I felt like I could connect to Sophia and how she was trying to take down the patriarchy, which is what I would like to do. Like, Constance was just so out there and would stab anybody, and Sophia kind of wanted to be like that, but she wasn’t there yet, and I felt like I related with that. Like, I want to be more, but I’m not quite there yet. And I really loved having Sophia narrate the story.
JB: For me, I think my favorite scene in Geekerella would be a tie between when she finishes her costume and she has the big reveal of the finished piece and the quiet scenes between her and Sage on the food truck. Sage is off-putting, but not necessarily mean, and I just love her for being that quiet supportive friend who’s not really your friend but low-key she loves you. I just love her so much! She’s my favorite, other than Elle.
With Cinderella is Dead, I think my favorite character is Constance because she just reveals the twistiness of the kingdom. From cover to cover, I love this book. I can’t pick just one scene; no, it’s the whole book.
HM: Are there any forthcoming children’s or young adult retellings that you both are excited for? For instance, I just read and reviewed The Code for Love and Heartbreak by Jillian Cantor — who I also interviewed; she is lovely! It’s a retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, but it’s set in modern-day New Jersey and is all about computer coding and a matchmaking app. It’s really cute and fun; if you like Jane Austen or just want something that will warm your heart, definitely read that. I’m also excited for Darling by Kayla Ancrum, which is a forthcoming retelling of Peter Pan set in Chicago. I think it’s going to be really cool and is supposed to be a thriller, which could be super interesting. I believe it’s coming out in 2021. I’m also excited for These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong, which is a reimagining of Romeo & Juliet, except I believe it’s set in 1920s Shanghai, so that’s going to be really exciting. The cover is gorgeous and it’s coming out this November, so stay tuned! And lastly, She’s Too Pretty to Burn by Wendy Heard, which is being pitched as a sapphic reimagining of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and is coming out in March 2021. So many retellings to read! Ah!
WW: So, I have so many that I can’t even remember them all. One is Among the Beasts & Briars by Ashley Poston, and I don’t even know what it’s a retelling of, but I feel like it has Beauty & the Beast vibes, and I can’t wait to read it. There’s also all these ones in the A Twisted Tale series that came out recently, and I haven’t had a chance to read them yet. I just have too many on my TBR list that I can’t even remember them.
JB: I’m pretty excited for She’s Too Pretty to Burn. And I don’t know if it has a title yet, but Bethany C. Morrow is coming out with a book that’s a retelling of Little Women, and I have been dying for a Little Women retelling that speaks to my soul with non-white characters. I kind of want to go into the back-list of retellings and read A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney and Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim. If you guys have recommendations, send them my way!
HM: Lastly, and just for fun, what story would you both love to see retold? For example, I would love to see a feminist retelling of Dracula from the perspective of a more empowered Mina Harker. Perhaps, Mina is even a Van Helsing-type vampire hunter who’s tracking down the Prince of Darkness himself. Young adult publishing: take my money and make it happen! What about you guys?
JB: I want to see queer retellings of every single fairy tale, every single story. Like, I want to see Victor Frankenstein get with Henry more explicitly. Also, Mulan is one of my favorite characters in the world, so I really want a Mulan retelling where Shang is bisexual, and they fall in love, and then she’s like, “I’m actually a woman,” and he’s like, “I didn’t care either way.” I feel like Cinderella is Dead kind of fulfilled that for me because she dresses up as a man and is trying to fight the patriarchy and is throwing down with the king, so it’s a little bit of Cinderella and a little bit of Mulan. I will die for any other Little Women retelling as well.
WW: So, this is only a sort-of retelling, but I really want the Harry Potter series retold from Hermione’s perspective. There are definitely problematic things happening right now with that series, but every time I watch the movies and read the books, I’m like, “Okay, but what is Hermione doing right now?” Like, in the second one, when they’re in the flying car, Hermione is alone on the train, and I’m like, “What’s she doing? What’s she thinking?” I want to know what’s going on with her. But the main retelling that I want that I think I’m going to write someday is a retelling of Peter Pan. Like I mentioned, I have such a close connection to the Peter Pan story, being named after Wendy, so I’m going to write a retelling of Peter Pan with Wendy narrating—because obviously Wendy needs to narrate that—and Wendy is going to be a pirate at some point in it because that is amazing and I want that. I don’t know what else is going to happen, but she’s going to be an awesome feminist character. So look for that because that’s going to be on shelves one day.
PRR Writers, Jackie Balbastro, Wendy Waltrip, and Hannah Miller