“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.

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

  1. Rebecca, I think the love of fanfiction and “bent classics” starts young. As an elementary school librarian, my students loved fractured fairytales, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and others. Thanks for sharing a more mature reading list!

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