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Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood

Liesl Shurtliff writes Li'l Red into her fractured fairy tales

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved to read Grimm's Fairy Tales and play in the woods.

This girl grew up to be a best-selling author who loved to tell variations on classic fairy tales.

Liesl Shurtliff’s Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood reached The New York Times' best-seller list in April, while Shurtliff was in the midst of a tour promoting her new novel. The tour brings the author to Milwaukee on May 10, when, with the support of Boswell Book Company, Shurtliff will visit local schools.

“I go directly to the schools and I speak about my books, where I get my ideas, my writing process, how to develop ideas into a story,” says Shurtliff. She’s on an hourlong break between signing books and talking with students in a class in Cincinnati. “I explain all about fairy tales and talk about where they come from.”

Red, Shurtliff’s third novel after Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin and Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk, is for middle-grade readers; the author says ages 8 to 12 is the "sweet spot" she considers when writing.

But readers of any age will become enchanted by this fractured fairy tale about a girl, her grandmother, a wolf, lots of magic and an adventure in “The Woods.” The spell is cast with the opening sentence: “The first time I tried my hand at magic, I grew roses out of my nose.”

Shurtliff, who lives in Chicago with her husband and three children, grew up in Salt Lake City. There her family spent a lot of time hiking and camping in Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons in the Wasatch Range, which she remembers as “better than Disneyland.”

As a child, she devoured fairy tales: “I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales. My grandmother gave me a copy for a gift one year. I was kind of shocked by the contents. I thought, I can’t believe I am allowed to read these.”

Shurtliff also danced and fell in love with the fairy tale ballets, like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

Liesl Shurtliff.

Liesl Shurtliff.

“Fairy tales just resonated with me, in a powerful way,” Shurtliff says. “As a kid, I really did love the princess tales. As a grown woman, I shy away from them. The girls in those stories are often so passive.”

There’s nothing passive about Red, the hero in The True Story of Red Riding Hood.

When readers ask about the “true story” part of the title, Shurtliff says, “It’s really different from what you’ve seen before. It’s a different way of looking at the story.”

She reminds readers that most of the fairy tales they know are revisions.

One of the first stories Shurtliff wrote was about a riff on Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. She wrote about a turtle who found the lamp and gave it a rub.

“I was writing these retellings at a very young age,” she says. “When I got older and started writing, I didn’t want to write fantasy at all. I wanted to write serious fiction. Young adult fiction.”

Then she tumbled into the story for Rump: “I was thinking about names being our destiny … and I thought of Rumpelstiltskin. I kept thinking about this.”

She developed the Rump’s story and from that novel came Jack’s story and then Red’s tale, a story to make a reader shudder with fear, laugh out loud, wipe away a tear and most certainly cheer on a strong-willed, independent girl braving the dangers of a dark forest to save her granny and defy death.

In this version of the tale, Red and Granny are witches but Red has sworn off magic because she’s afraid of miscasting spells. She must confront this weakness when Granny falls ill and needs a cure-all potion made of ingredients to be found in the woods.

On her hero’s quest, Red encounters a wolf, Horst the Huntsman, Goldie Locks and others and learns lessons about life and love, friendship and fear.

Shurtliff says she’s writing one more fractured fairy tale, a retelling of the Snow White and the seven dwarfs story from the perspective of Borlen, a dwarf familiar to readers of Red.

“I’m hard at work on the story and I’m finding a lot of delight on the telling,” she says.

On the bookshelf

Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood by Liesl Shurtliff is published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers.


Recommendations for a child’s summer reading list

Middle grades

The Peddler’s Road by Matthew Cody, an action-adventure tale featuring a child protagonist with a disability and bursting with intrigue and challenging riddles. Fans of A Tale Dark and Grimm and A Series of Unfortunate Events will want to keep reading.

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, the story of a 13-year-old transgender girl, Lily, and her friend, Dunkin, a new student dealing with bipolar disorder. They meet one summer morning and their lives forever change.

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall, a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old boy depressed by his father’s recent death and dealing with the themes of loss and anger, art and meaning and relationships.

Roller Girl written and illustrated by Victoria Jamieson, a graphic novel about Astrid, who falls in love with roller derby and learns how to be fearless.

Picture books

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend written and illustrated by Dan Santat, a delightful story about Beekle, an imaginary friend, who undergoes an emotional journey looking for his human.

Nana in the City written and illustrated by Lauren Castillo, the story of a boy’s visit to his grandmother, who helps him to lose his fear and experience the city in a new way.

Viva Frida illustrated and written by Yuyi Morales, celebrates the artistic process and the famed artist.

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus illustrated by Melissa Sweet and written by Jen Bryant, explores the personality and work of a man who ordered the world into lists that evolved into his groundbreaking thesaurus.

Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, tells the story of a child, his Nana and their bus ride to the last stop Market Street.

— L.N.

Pippa Neff, of Kenosha, reads from a children’s book to brother a Gavin and sister Georgie. — PHOTO: Erin Rogers Neff

Pippa Neff, of Pleasant Prairie, reads from a children’s book to brother Gavin and sister Georgie.
— PHOTO: Erin Rogers Neff

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