By Ashly Moore Sheldon • April 03, 2020
Young people may be reluctant to embrace old stuff, but there are plenty of great reasons to introduce your kids to the classics. For one thing, it will help them recognize important references to these iconic tales in cultural contexts. Do you have a teenager loafing around your house who needs a reading project? How about having them compare and contrast a classic book with an updated retelling? Here are ten timeless tomes, paired with modern takes. BTW, this is also a great project for grownups!
Homer’s epic gets a feminist update with The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. By flipping the script and telling the story from the point of view of Odysseus’s wife Penelope, Atwood offers a witty, yet haunting, perspective.
In Virgil’s epic poem from Ancient Rome, the long-suffering wife is Lavinia. This is Ursula K. Le Guin’s portrayal of Lavinia’s story as she is caught up in the wild battle for Rome’s future. This could also provide a comparable example to Atwood’s earlier novel discussed above.
Margot Livesey takes on Charlotte Bronte’s Gothic novel in The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Set in 1960s Scotland, this version offers many familiar elements, including escape from a horrible boarding school in the form of an intriguing new job with mysterious secrets and a dreamy, complicated employer/love interest.
David Wroblewski’s coming-of-age story is built on the frame of Shakespeare’s tragic play. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle centers on a mute boy whose life is upended when his father suddenly dies. When his odious uncle appears and takes over the family farm, Edgar goes on the run, along with three loyal canine companions.
In Going Bovine, Libba Bray replaces Miguel de Cervantes’s delirious old knight with a hallucinating teen who has just been diagnosed with Mad Cow disease. Young Cameron’s chance at a cure will require a long, strange, and quixotic (had to do it!) journey. Clever, witty, and full of wild twists and turns, this is a trip worth taking.
A dark, sophisticated take on L. Frank Baum’s original, Wicked depicts an Oz, filled with bigotry and unrest. Told from the point of view of the green-skinned, misunderstood Elphaba, Gregory Maguire’s wild, worldly tale is not appropriate for young children.
Grendel from the Old English epic poem represents one of the first supernatural monsters in literature. Grendel by John Gardner imagines the beast’s side of the story. You may even find yourself rooting for him.
Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning March offers a new take on Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel from the perspective of Robert March as he leaves his girls to join the Union army. A pacifist, the Civil War challenges his deepest beliefs as he finds himself rediscovering his marriage from afar.
China Miéville’s brilliant reimagining of Herman Melville’s seafaring tale by is set in an otherworldly universe where heroine Captain Naphi hunts a different type of great white. The action in Railsea takes place on trains, rather than boats, and instead of a deadly whale, it’s a giant subterranean rodent.
What is it about Jane Austen novels that makes them so ripe for upates? Whatever it is, we never seem to tire of them. Bridget Jones’s Diary (the basis for the hit movie) by Helen Fielding reimagines the original’s plucky heroine as the perennially hapless, yet charming, titular character navigating a modern world of dieting and bad dates.
Hopefully there’s something here that might appeal to any aimless young students you may have hanging around. But bear in mind, these books are also a great way for seasoned readers to revisit beloved stories. Feel free to pick them up for yourself!