Twice Upon A Time: New Twists on Old Tales

This article was written by Noelle Sterne.

Maybe you loved fairy tales as a kid but dismiss them for your children’s writing projects. Fairy tales, though, are worthy precursors of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter empire. Re-tales can help you break into publishing and lead to startling success—Gail Carson Levine won the Newbery Award with her Cinderella adaptation of Ella Enchanted (1997) and a movie and DVD (2004). Snow White gets ninja training in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012).

In “Grimm,” a current television detective is descended from “Grimms,” who must keep a balance between humans and supernatural characters. He pursues dastardly characters based on the classic fairy tales by the Grimm brothers. In “Once Upon a Time,” another contemporary TV series, the residents of “Storybrooke” are fairy tale characters whose memories of their origins have been erased by an evil villainess and who live in the real world under her curse.

Legendary characters remain alive and plotting. To show you how other old tales can be freshly recast, here I compare aspects of the traditional “Jack and the Beanstalk” story (Jennifer Greenway, Classic Fairy Tale Treasury, Andrews and McMeel, 1995) and several other versions in print, variously irreverent.

Different Characters

Jack’s mother. Traditional: Jack’s poor widowed mother shouts at him for trading the cow, their only possession, for a few beans. She calls him stupid but gets over it.

Val Biro (Treasury of Children’s Literature, Hutchinson, 2000) shows Jack’s mother going berserk. “Beans? . . . You are an idiot! Nincompoop! Dunderhead!” (p. 305).

The Bean-Trader. Traditional: He’s a “strange little man . . . in a bright green suit” (Greenway, p. 142). In Biro, he’s “a gnarled old man with twinkly eyes” (p. 304). In Steven Kellogg’s Jack and the Beanstalk (Harper Trophy, 1997), a wizard gives Jack the beans and watches his adventures from a hot-air balloon. Andrew Lang (The Red Fair Book, Dover 1890/2000) depicts the bean-giver as a butcher.

Jack’s First Castle Encounter. Traditional: The giant’s wife warns Jack he could be her husband’s next breakfast meat. In Lang, on the way to the castle Jack meets an odd woman with flowing hair wearing a “quilted red satin” pointed cap (p. 127). She’s the bearer of a complex subplot: a noble knight, his wife and children lived in the castle. The Giant killed the knight and his wife and one child escaped. Jack’s mother is the noblewoman and Jack is the rightful heir of the castle.

Personality Traits

Jack the Good Boy. Traditional: Jack tries to help his mother, makes an impulsive, flighty decision, and later shows his courage and resourcefulness. “Jack was a giddy, thoughtless boy, but very kind-hearted and affectionate” (Lang, p. 125).

Jack the Dangerously Curious. In Ann Beneduce’s saga (Jack and the Beanstalk, Philomel, 1999), Jack endangers his life by “always asking ‘What if . . .? and ‘Why?’ and ‘Where . . . ?’” (p. 2).

 Jack the Sharp-Witted Wiseguy. Biro simultaneously gives children a mathematics lesson and shows us Jack’s quickness and sassiness. The gnarled old man asks, “I wonder if you know how many beans make five?” Jack replies instantly, “Two in each hand and one in your mouth” (p. 304).

Plot Variations

Traditional: Jack steals the golden egg-laying goose from the Giant’s castle and trades the eggs for food. He, his mother, and the goose live happily ever after.

In Lang and Biro, Jack makes three trips to the castle: first he steals a golden-egg laying hen, and then bags of gold, and last a bejeweled singing harp. Having more than proved himself, as heir apparent he finally (re-)possesses the castle.

Jack gets a sports update in A. J. Jacobs’ take (Fractured Fairy Tales, Bantam, 1997). He comes to the city and joins the chronically-losing baseball team, the Boston Beavers. Showing his misplaced knowledge, Jack eagerly keeps asking the coach when he’ll get to make a touchdown.

Finally, in yet another game the Beavers are losing, the coach puts him in the game and tells him to run to the outfield. Jack pulls a magic bean from his pocket, plants it in center field, and waters it. The bean instantly grows and becomes a towering stalk.

The slugger of the opposing team hits an almost-sure winning homer. But Jack jumps on the beanstalk, shinnies up, and, just in time, catches the enemy’s high fly. He saves the day, the game, and the team. With Jack’s magic beans, the Beavers—now renamed the Beans—go on to win game after game.

Points of View

Traditional: Jack sees his life as an adventure.

In Giants Have Feelings Too (Steck-Vaughn, 1996), Alvin Granowsky favors the marginalized. The giant’s wife laments, “After I was so kind to [Jack], he stole from us, and he hurt my husband. All because we are giants!” (p. 3).

Raymond Briggs’ sequel, Jim and the Beanstalk (Putnam, 1970/1997), shows Jim visiting the now-aged and infirm giant, who has weak eyes, bad teeth, and little hair. Like a budding social worker, Jim gets him bifocals, false teeth, and a wig.

Gender Switch: Jack the Girl

In Denise Vega’s Jill and the Beanstalk (Newfangled Fairy Tales, Meadowbrook, 1998), Jill, like Jack, sells her poor mother’s cow for the magic beans and climbs up the beanstalk to a magnificent castle. Once there, she shows her courage and asks the giant for a tour of the castle. Ignoring the giant’s outer threatening appearance, she empathically counsels him to stop eating little boys, and he is surprisingly cooperative.

Jill then befriends the giant and his wife, whom she persuades to climb down the beanstalk and live peacefully among the people. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Jill then gives tours of the giant’s castle and makes so much money she gets her mother needed medical attention and has the cottage repaired.

Kate is equally spunky in Mary Pope Osborne’s, Kate and the Beanstalk (Atheneum, 2000). She starts out in a Jack-like situation and when she sees the beans, she can’t resist. They “shone like dark gold” and Kate admits, “I don’t think I can live without them” (p. 3). But when she learns of a noble family’s inheritance, which the Giant has stolen, with a true kind heart she immediately resolves to right the wrong. Kate doesn’t know it’s her own family.

She shows herself resourceful when she enters the castle, disguising herself twice. When she sees the enormous cooking duties of the giant’s wife, Kate offers to help her make breakfast. Finally, after vanquishing the Giant, Kate and her mother take rightful possession of the castle, and she offers the giant’s widow a job as cook and companion.

Writerly Ever After

See all these inventive variations? You can revamp any fairy tale you choose in imaginative, funny, outrageous ways. You’ll stretch your creativity, challenge your writing audacity, and connect with today’s children. And your new-old tales will surprise editors into acceptance, entice parents and teachers into buying your books, and delight young readers.

Note: Jack too has had his share of Hollywood glitter. Films were produced, and I’ve probably missed a few, in 1947 (with Mickey Mouse as Jack), 1952 (with the old-time comedians Abbott and Costello!), 1965, 1972 (a Japanese version), 1995, 2002, 2005, and 2010. Jack seems to be evergreen: a new version, “Jack the Giant Slayer” just appeared in 2013.


For reading more old and new fairy tales and even publishing your own, see these:

  1. Cabinet des Feés: A Fairy Tale
  2. Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale
  3. Horn
  4. New Fairy
  5. SurLaLune Fairy


Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 300 pieces of fiction and  nonfiction in print and online venues. Her column in Coffeehouse for Writers is titled “Bloom Where You’re Writing.” With a  Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations.  Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) uses examples from her practice,  writing, and other aspects of life to help readers let go of regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. 

With Trust Your Life, she has been invited to participate in the Unity Books “Summer of Self-Discovery,” a reading series on  Goodreads with two other Unity Books authors of positive messages. Goodreads members and others are invited to join the  Unity Books book discussion group on Goodreads and take part in free author webcasts. For more information, see the Unity page (as of May 1, 2013) and the Unity Books Goodreads discussion group:
Visit Noelle at


  1. Chris Jean Ciolli

    Oh, how fun. I love fairy tales, always have, and have really enjoyed modern twists, and adult variations on the theme. I really enjoy Juliet Marillier’s books based on fairy tales.

  2. Anjali

    What a great title. Maybe you could re-tale a fairy tale and give it that title.

  3. Deanna

    Great article!
    Many of Grimm’s fairy tales could easily be twisted into adult horror stories. It fascinates me that these stories are reborn over and over again.
    Thanks for sharing the goodreads & Unity Books information!

  4. Noelle Sterne

    Chris, Angali, and Deanna–

    Many thanks for your enthusiasm and appreciation. I too marvel at the endless creativity of writers in retelling, reinventing, and retwisting fairy tales. If you are so moved, I look forward to your own revampings!

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