“And You May Contribute a Verse”: Adapted, Diversified Classics for Teens, Part Two

By Rebecca Moore, c.2020

Welcome to part two of this annotated bibliography of adapted and diversified—sometimes called “bent”—classics for teens. In this context, “classics” are works which have an established presence in the western canon, and are written by named authors. They have been bent by gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and more. Although authors’ motivations are complex and individual, they often include exploring the universality of themes in the original texts, and embodying a Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass (1891) quote: “That you are here—that life exists, and identity/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

Part one covered adaptations of works by Shakespeare. Part two covers adaptations of works by other authors.

Benincasa, Sara. Great. HarperTeen, 2014. 270 p. $17.99. 978-0-06222-269-5.
This modern-day adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) follows Naomi, daughter of a Food Network star, to a summer in East Hampton. Their neighbor, Jacinta Trimalchio, is an enigmatic fashionista and over-the-top party giver. Why is she obsessed with meeting Delilah Fairweather, a casual friend of Naomi’s? Benincasa felt the themes of Gatsby “were incredibly relevant to teenagers” (Benincasa). In gender-swapping the Gatsby character and keeping the Daisy character female, Benincasa, who is bisexual (Flans), “wanted to play with elements of teen sexuality and to talk about the difference between obsession and love, and I wanted to see where those lines are blurred, particularly for teenage girls” (Benincasa).

Cameron, Sharon. Rook. Scholastic Press, 2016. 464 p. $9.99 pb. 978-1-33803-246-8.
In this gender-flipped reboot of Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), a far-future dystopic Earth has reverted to a pre-industrial, technology-banning level of society. Disguised as The Red Rook, Sophia Bellamy rescues prisoners from the Sunken City (formerly Paris). Can she accept the help of—and arranged marriage with—Rene Hasard, a Parisian who is more than he seems? The author states: “[I]t’s all about corsets, swords, decapitations and a female spy, and is a huge homage to The Scarlet Pimpernel” (Cameron, Author Interview). As to why the gender flip, Cameron is an admirer of author J.R.R. Tolkien, and appreciates and emulates his theme of: “Anyone, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can make their world worse, or they can make it better. Inner strength wins” (Cameron, Blog Tour). Or, as the book trailer asks: “Who needs a wedding ring when you can pick up a sword?” (Rook).

Hand, Cynthia. The Afterlife of Holly Chase. HarperTeen, 2018. 416 p. $9.99 pb. 978-0-06231-851-0.
Holly Chase, a wealthy Hollywood teen, was such a Scrooge that she got a visit from The Christmas Carol’s (Charles Dickens, 1843) three ghosts—and laughed it off. When she then died, she got recruited as the new Ghost of Christmas Past in Project Scrooge, which chooses one person a year to help. Five years later, the Scrooge is seventeen-year-old Ethan Winters. Author Cynthia Hand loved the original, and wanted to modernize the story to make it about younger, more diverse characters” (Hand). As to making Holly female, she felt that, unlike crotchety old men whom we believe can change for the good, “society is not accepting of teenage girls who aren’t, well, nice.” Thus she really wanted “to showcase Holly as a flawed, growing character—to try to push back against those gender biased expectations” (Hand).

Khan, Hena. More To the Story. Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019. 272 p. $17.99. 978-1-48149-209-6.
This adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) sets the story in modern Atlanta, with a Pakistani-American family. Seventh grader Jameela reports for the school paper, and yearns to cover stories that really matter, like microaggressions. Then her sister Bismah gets sick. Khan was “obsessed” with Little Women in her youth, and wrote, “I think I understood and could even relate to some of the societal and gender norms [the characters] faced as a child of Pakistani immigrants.” She added, “I always thought the story lent itself well to a retelling from a Pakistani American perspective.” She considered her story “a love letter to my favorite book!” (Khan).

Langdon, Lorie. Olivia Twist. Blink, 2018. 336 p. $18.99. 978-0-31076-341-3.
This continuation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) imagines that Oliver was always Olivia, and had to keep her gender hidden as an easily-exploited orphan. Now sixteen and living a high society life with her cash-strapped guardian, Olivia has reverted to her thieving ways to support a group of orphans who know her as Oliver. Then she encounters the Artful Dodger once more, and her life takes a turn. As a child, the author loved imagining that Oliver was really a girl. “This way,” she said, “I could imagine myself as the heroine of the story and the Artful Dodger as the hero. In my childhood fantasies, the two would have endless adventures and eventually fall in love and escape from poverty” (Langdon).

McKinney, L.L. A Blade So Black. Square Fish.2019. 400 p. $10.99 pb. 978-1-25021-166-8.
Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), this story’s Alice, a Black teen, lives in modern Atlanta. As a dreamwalker, she secretly travels to Wonderland with the help of her trainer, Addison Hatta, to fight nightmares before they can escape into our world. The author wanted to write an adaptation of the classic that was “steeped in Black Girl Magic” (Author’s Note). As she tells readers in her afterword: “To those black kids searching countless shelves and between endless pages, hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves in galaxies far away, fantasies long ago, and stories here and now: This one’s for you. Shine on, and drive back the dark.”

McSmith, Tobly. Stay Gold. HarperTeen, 2020. 368 p. $18.99. 978-0-06294-317-0.
With S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) as inspiration, McSmith also sets his book in a Texas small-town high school with cheerleaders, football players, and outsiders. But here, outsider Pony is transgender, going “stealth” at a new school. On day one, he locks eyes with Georgia, a cheerleader who wants more from life than popularity. McSmith, who is transgender, sees books, and especially fiction, as “the ultimate safe space.” However, having rarely found books reflecting his own experience, he put it in the book “so that it creates a safe space for other trans people. And that so other people can read about our experiences and learn from them, and help create more safe spaces” (McSmith). The connection to The Outsiders came from reflections on the book’s toxic masculinity, which equated fighting with manhood, and the hope that “[m]anhood is no longer measured by aggression and force” (341). The original “stay gold” urged Ponyboy to stay innocent. Now, Georgia urges Pony to “Stay gold, Pony. Stay true to yourself when the world pushes against you…because you are exceptional, and everyone will catch up someday” (342).

Soontornvat, Christina. A Wish in the Dark.Candlewick, 2020. 384 p. $17.99. 978-1-53620-494-0.
In the city of Chattana, all artificial light comes from the dictatorial Governor, who reserves light for the worthy—and wealthy. Pong and Somkit, having been born in Namwon Prison, know they will never enjoy that light. Then Pong escapes, and Nok, daughter of the prison’s overseer, is determined to track him down. Having loved Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) in her youth, the author always wanted to adapt it, and found that setting it in a fantastical Thailand helped make it her own. As she said, “It is a love letter to Thailand for sure! The world in the book is based on my dad’s stories of growing up in Bangkok as a young boy. When I was a kid, those stories were so vivid and fairytale-like to me, and that mood is what I tried to bring into the story” (Soontornvat).

Teran, Andi. Ana of California. Penguin, 2015. 368 p. $16.00 Trade pb. 978-0-14312-649-2.
In this adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), Ana is a Latinx teen from Los Angeles, who has been in and out of foster homes and rough situations. At sixteen, her “last chance” is an internship on a Northern California farm run by a brother and sister. The author felt a strong kinship with the original Anne, and with Los Angeles. She chose to make Ana Latinx because, as she said, “I am Mexican American myself, so it was really important that my character reflect my heritage in that way. And I also wanted to write a story for young women with a Latina heroine, because it’s not something that you see typically in fiction” (Teran).

Terciero, Rey, and Bre Indigo, ill. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019. 256 p. $12.99 pb. 978-0-31652-288-5.
This graphic novel adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) sets the story in modern New York City, with a blended and multicultural family. Their military father is serving overseas, and each girl struggles with her own issues at home, including Jo coming to understand her own sexuality. The author, who is white, loved the original in his youth, finding the girls’ struggles “universal.” As to diversifying it, Terciero and the book’s illustrator, Bre Indigo, “wanted to see ourselves in the characters too, which is why we made the family diverse and one of the characters LGBTQ… Being LGBT myself, I’m just happy to be creating a book that I wish I could have read as a young reader” (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy). Indigo, who is Black, says that “some of the character’s surface traits have been changed to allow for some readers to relate in ways they might not have been able to before” (Indigo).

Zoboi, Izzy. Pride. Balzer + Bray, 2019. 304 p. $10.99 pb. 978-0-06256-405-4.
Brooklyn native Zuri, an Afro-Latino teen, is proud of her family and her neighborhood. Wary of Brooklyn’s gentrification, as represented by her wealthy new neighbors the Darcys, Zuri is especially dismayed by the judgmental, arrogant Darius Darcy. Zoboi saw many themes in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) that connected with gentrification. She also wanted to help students of color, forced to read the original, find their own connections to the story. “In the same way that wealthier newcomers to under-served neighborhoods erase the established cultures, this my very own way of reverse gentrifying the Brit-lit canon,” she said. As Austen commented on class and women’s issues, a “Haitian-Dominican teen in Brooklyn can grapple with those same issues” (Zoboi).

Other Works Cited

Benincasa, Sara. “Interview: Sara Benincasa on Young Adult Fiction, Anxiety, and Why Her Imagination Is like a Wild Animal.” Interview conducted by Alex Steed. Steed, BDN Maine Blog network, 10 Jan. 2014, steed.bangordailynews.com/2014/01/10/interview-sara-benincasa-on-young-adult-fiction-and-why-her-imagination-is-like-a-wild-animal/.

Cameron, Sharon. “Author Interview: Sharon Cameron.” Interview conducted by Kaleigh C. Maguire. Authography LLC, edited by Jacqui Lipton, 15 May 2014, kcmaguire.com/blog/author-interview-sharon-cameron.

—. “Blog Tour: Rook by Sharon Cameron – Interview and Giveaway.” Chapter by Chapter, 30 Apr. 2015, www.chapter-by-chapter.com/blog-tour-rook-by-sharon-cameron-interview-and-giveaway/.

Flans, Lauren, and Nicole Pacent, hosts. “Sara Benincasa.” Coming Out with Lauren & Nicole, episode 16, 26 Sept. 2018, comingoutpod.libsyn.com/episode-16-sara-benincasa-0.

Hand, Cynthia. “Question about Afterlife of Holly Chase.” Received by the author, 9 May 2020.

Indigo, Bre. “Rich Interviews: Bre Indigo Penciler: For Meg, Jo, Beth, & Amy: Little Women.” First Comics News, 15 Mar. 2018, www.firstcomicsnews.com/rich-interviews-bre-indigo-penciler-for-meg-jo-beth-amy-little-women/. Interview.

Khan, Hena. “Interview: Hena Khan.” Interview conducted by Bookvillageadmin. MG Book Village, 3 Sept. 2019, mgbookvillage.org/2019/09/03/interview-hena-khan/.

Langdon, Lorie. “Author Interview & Book Release: Lorie Langdon / Olivia Twist.” The Spinning Pen, 5 Apr. 2018, thespinningpen.com/2018/04/05/author-interview-book-release-lorie-langdon-olivia-twist/. Interview.

McSmith, Tobly, narrator. “How Safe Spaces Save Lives.” Harper Stacks, Harper Collins Studio, 25 May 2020. YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeEOfih69YE.

“Meg, Jo, Beth, And Amy Celebrates The 150th Anniversary of Little Women as a Modernized Graphic Novel from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Tapas Media.” Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Hachette, 6 Mar. 2018, www.lbyr.com/hachette-book-group-news/meg-jo-beth-and-amy-celebrates-the-150th-anniversary-of-little-women-as-a-modernized-graphic-novel-from-little-brown-books-for-young-readers-and-tapas-media/.

“Rook by Sharon Cameron Book Trailer.” YouTube, uploaded by Sharon Cameron, 12 Apr. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=17&v=GlSDsV8SuMs&feature=emb_logo.

Soontornvat, Christina. “Author Interview: Magic, Writing & Durians; A Conversation with Christina Soontornvat, Author of MG Thai-Inspired Fantasy, A Wish in the Dark.” Interview conducted by Skye (Shuurens). The Quiet Pond: A Book Blog, 1 Apr. 2020, thequietpond.com/2020/04/01/author-interview-magic-writing-durians-a-conversation-with-christina-soontornvat-author-of-mg-thai-inspired-fantasy-a-wish-in-the-dark/.

Teran, Andi. “Interview with Andi Teran, Author of Ana of California.” Interview conducted by Chris Caraveo. Medium, 9 Oct. 2015, medium.com/@ChrisCaraveo31/interview-with-andi-teran-author-of-ana-of-california-69567b51b741.

Whitman, Walt. “O Me! O Life!” Leaves of Grass, 2008. The Gutenberg Project, www.gutenberg.org/files/1322/1322-h/1322-h.htm#link2H_4_0121. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.

Zoboi, Ibi. “Walk the Jagged Streets of Gentrification with Ibi Zoboi’s Pride.” Interview conducted by Marie Marquardt. Teen Librarian Toolbox, School Library Journal, 20 Sept. 2018, www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2018/09/walk-the-jagged-streets-of-gentrification-with-ibi-zobois-pride-a-guest-post-by-marie-marquardt/.

“The Powerful Play Goes On”: Adapted, Diversified Classics for Teens

By Rebecca Moore, c.2020

Before stories were fixed in print and copyright, they belonged to everyone and no one, and were retold and adapted as the storyteller saw fit. That drive to retell has never vanished, as is evidenced by the plethora of adult and YA novels—not to mention fanfiction—adapting classic tales from Cinderella to Sherlock Holmes.

Writers adapt classics for multiple reasons. For instance, readers familiar with the original have a leg up into the adaptation, which might induce them to read it. Writers gain an advantage from whatever aspects of the characters, setting, plot, etc., they feel inspired to use, and may also find it an engaging writing exercise. The growing trend of adapting classics by making them more diverse—sometimes called “bending” or “re-storying”—brings more reasons to the table. Some writers adapt canon stories to show the universality of their themes/plots/etc. Others, especially #ownvoices writers, adapt to create and/or enhance representation. Many writers do both.

Classics hold cultural power for three main reasons. First, readers from all groups love them, and share them with friends and family. Second, familiarity with the canon often proves key in advancement within the dominant culture, such as getting diplomas, degrees, and respect, whereas familiarity with the stories of a non-dominant culture merits no such respect. Third, many generations of readers have grown up believing in the “single story” classics frequently represent. That “single story” tends to encompass only the dominant culture/gender/sexuality/etc., essentially erasing—and thus in some ways controlling—non-dominant groups.

Bending such classics can enhance representation of underrepresented groups in all readers’ minds. This can help readers from dominant cultures gain empathy, understanding, and awareness. Readers from non-dominant groups can feel a reclamation of the stories through the representation, and an assertion of their right to engage with writers from the past on their own terms. Bending is thus a form of resistance against the “single story” of the dominant-culture canon. Diversifying classics is a step toward embodying a Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass(1891) quote: “That you are here—that life exists, and identity/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

This is the first of two booklists of bent classics. We start with perhaps the biggest canon writer in the English language, William Shakespeare, himself a re-teller of tales. Part two, coming in August, will cover adaptations of other classics.

Fleet, Suki. This Is Not a Love Story. Dreamspinner, 2014. 270p. $16.99 Trade pb. 978-1-63216-040-9.
This re-imagined Romeo and Juliet tells the story of Romeo, a homeless, mute, teen who sells his body on the streets to survive. Julian, is the older teen protector Romeo loves. The ending, however, is not tragic. Said Fleet: “My aim was to write a story that, while it harped back to Shakespeare’s classic themes, ended in hope instead of tragedy.” As the majority of LGBTQ+ books Fleet read in their youth ended tragically, “reading became a painful experience.” For current LGBTQ+ youth, Fleet wanted to write a story “more hopeful and positive [and] diverse” (Fleet).

Jones, Patrick. Unbarred series. Lerner, 2016.
Jones’ experiences working with incarcerated youth, mostly of color, drove his writing of this hi-lo series that adapts Shakespeare’s works into modern, urban settings and language. The original impulse arose when a teacher insisted on teaching Shakespeare to incarcerated students who were mostly of color and reluctant readers (Jones, 2020). Said Jones: “I’m interested in telling stories about teens who don’t get their stories told by mainstream writers” (Jones, 2015). Many teens he saw were “struggling readers for so many reasons, but in part because they didn’t see themselves in books and/or they’d failed so many times trying to read in past that they associated any book with failure” (Jones, 2016).

Jones, Patrick. Heart or Mind. Lerner, 2016. 120 p. $7.99 pb. 978-1-51240-091-5.
This book recasts Romeo as Rodney, a Black boy recently out of a correctional institute. He falls for Jawahir, a Somali Muslim girl, but in Minneapolis, the conflict between Blacks and Somalis is violent.  

Jones, Patrick, and Marshunna Clark. Duty or Desire. Lerner, 2016. 120 p. $27.99. 978-1-51240-002-1. $7.99 pb. 978-1-51240-089-2.
The authors re-imagine Anthony as Alejandro, a Latinx teen released after serving time on a trumped-up charge. He is seeking to free himself from his gang. His Cleopatra is Chrissie, a Black teen who has suffered a similar police run-in.

Laskin, Pamela. Ronit & Jamil. Katharine Tegen Books, 2017. 192 p. $17.99. 978-0-06245-854-4.
This verse novel adaptation of Romeo and Juliet sets the story in modern Jerusalem, with the lovers being Israeli girl Ronit, and Palestinian boy Jamil. Laskin chose to bend the story to demonstrate the universality of not just young love, but “of adults whose blind intransigence serves unwittingly to destroy this love,” and of how each generation must “[find] a future in full adult awareness while rejecting the burdens of the past” (Author’s note).

McCall, Guadalupe. Shame the Stars. Tu Books, 2016. 288 p. $20.95. 978-1-62014-278-3.
In the early 1900s in Texas, the relationship between Texas Rangers and citizens of Mexican descent were violent, fraught, and unjust. Joaquin del Toro finds himself and his love, Dulceña, caught in the crossfire. McCall wanted to bring to light the injustices of that time, and was inspired by the theme “love is the most important thing of all.” Romeo and Juliet could have ended differently, she said, if people had had faith in love of family, home, community, and country. This book “is about our ability to conquer our fears and let the light of love shine through” (McCall).

Myers, Walter Dean. Street Love. HarperCollins, 2007. 160p. $8.99 pb. 978-0-06440-732-8.
This verse novel adaptation of Romeo and Juliet brings together Harlem teens Damian, bound for Brown, and Junice, trying to hold her family together after her mother is imprisoned. As a young reader, Myers never found himself or anything from his life in books. “As a consequence,” he said, “I did not love myself as a Black person or have a particular respect for much of the Black community.” He wrote about Black characters so modern teens could avoid the “subtle shame” he’d felt at his exclusion (Myers).

Shakespeare, William. The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet. Adapt. and illus. by Gareth Hinds. Candlewick, 2013. 128 p. $21.99. 978-0-76365-948-6. $12.99 Trade pb. 978-1-76366-807-5.
This beautifully illustrated abridgement features Capulets of Indian descent and Montagues of African descent. Hinds sought to “[underscore] the universality of the drama by bringing a multiracial cast to the setting of historical Verona” (Hinds).

Talley, Robin. As I Descended. HarperCollins, 2016. 388 p.  $17.99. 978-0-06240-923-2. $10.99 pb. 978-0-06240-924-9.
Talley re-imagines Macbeth as a horror story set in a southern boarding school. Maria, a Latinx senior, needs a scholarship for college. Her roommate and lover Lily, white and disabled, will stop at nothing to help her get it. Said Talley: “I think it’s important for fiction to show the breadth of the world we live in—positive, negative and in between,” in order to offer readers the “opportunity to reflect on their place in the larger world” (Talley, 2016). She also felt that the ambition and high stakes of Macbeth fit well into the setting (Talley, 2015).

Winters, Cat. The Steep & Thorny Way. Amulet, 2016. 352 p. $17.95. 978-1-41971-915-8. $9.99 pb. 978-1-41972-350-6.
In this adaptation of Hamlet, biracial teen Hanalee Denney lives in Oregon in 1923. Her Black father’s ghost is trying to warn her about the danger she is in, as the KKK have a hold on her town. A gay character is also in grave danger. The author wanted to bring to light “Oregon’s racist past—a past that clearly affected the state’s lack of racial diversity that exists to this day” (Winters), and found the Hamlet story a perfect framework on which to hang her tale (Author’s Note).

Other Works Cited

Fleet, Suki. “This Is Not a Love Story.” Received by the author, 11 Apr. 2020.

Hinds, Gareth. “Romeo and Juliet.” Gareth Hinds, 2018, www.garethhinds.com/wp/romeo-and-juliet/.

Jones, Patrick. “Author Interview: Patrick Jones.” Interview conducted by Charlotte Kirton. Finch Blog, Finch Books, 12 Feb. 2016, www.finch-books.com/blog/author-interview-patrick-jones.

—. “An Interview with Patrick Jones.” Interview conducted by Jessi Shulte-Honstad. Teen Librarian Toolbox, School Library Journal, 30 June 2015, www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2015/06/an-interview-with-patrick-jones-by-guest-blogger-jessi-schulte-honstad/.

—. “Unbarred Series.” Received by the author, 20 Apr. 2020.

McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. “Shame the Stars.” Received by the author, 19 Apr. 2020.

Myers, Walter Dean. “Reading Is Not Optional: An Interview with Walter Dean Myers.” Interview conducted by Amy Nathan. PEN America, 19 Mar. 2012, pen.org/reading-is-not-optional-an-interview-with-walter-dean-myers/.

Scott, David Meerman, and Reiko Scott. Fanocracy: Turning Fans into Customers and Customers into Fans. New York, Portfolio/Penguin, 2020.

Simeon, Laura. “Article Intro Notes.” Received by the author, 22 Apr. 2020.

Talley, Robin. “As I Descended: Author Robin Talley on Queer YA Retellings of Classic Stories.” Interview conducted by Dahlia Adler. BNTEENblog, Barnes & Noble, 16 Sept. 2016, www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/as-i-descended-author-robin-talley-on-queer-ya-retellings-of-classic-stories/.

—. “Robin Talley: ‘It’s important for fiction to show the breadth of the world we live in.’” Interview conducted by Confessionsofabooklover. The Guardian, Guardian News & Media, 2 Nov. 2015, www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/nov/02/robin-talley-interview-lies-we-tell-ourselves.

Thomas, Ebony E., and Amy Stornaiuolo. “Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 86, no. 3, 2016, pp. 313-338, 473. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/.

Whitman, Walt. “O Me! O Life!” Leaves of Grass, 2008. The Gutenberg Project, www.gutenberg.org/files/1322/1322-h/1322-h.htm#link2H_4_0121. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.

Winters, Cat. “The Time It Was about The Steep and Thorny Way.” Interview conducted by Stacee. Eleven Thirteen PM, 29 Feb. 2016, eleventhirteenpm.com/2016/02/the-time-it-was-about-the-steep-and-thorny-way.html.