Soman Chainani, best-selling author of the School for Good and Evil series, credits Walt Disney and a year of pandemic-induced isolation for his most recent children’s novel, Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales, a retelling of the famed Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, which have been scaring children since 1812.
“I grew up with Disney fairy tales,” Chainani says. “I think that’s sort of the common American plight — to grow up having experienced fairy tales through that lens…and so they’re quite one-dimensional in that good looks a certain way, evil looks a certain way. And everything is presented…very black-and-white and quite heteronormative.”
But Chainani is changing perceptions of good and evil.
He burst on to the scene in 2013 with The School for Good and Evil, the first in a series of six books, and all of them have been best sellers. The series is being adapted into a Netflix movie directed by Paul Feig and starring Charlize Theron, Laurence Fishburne, Kerry Washington, and Michelle Yeoh. If past is prologue, Beasts and Beauty will be as equally well-received by young readers. But the book might not have ever been written if it weren’t for a series of unfortunate events that occurred a week after Chainani turned in the final Good and Evil installment.
“I wanted a break, I wanted to go do something else,” he says. “And I had planned all these…intense, fun adventures for myself, almost like going on a walkabout into the world and…seeing what would happen. Then the pandemic happened…it was like all of the sudden, any plans for a refresh or reboot in life was gone.”
It was while he was at home during those long months that his mind drifted back to Disney and the Brothers Grimm.
“I started thinking about how my obsession in life has come back to these fairy tales and how they sort of corrupted my view of beauty and morality and all those things. I thought, What if I could just rewrite them? Redo the Grimms’ tales the way that I thought they should be done, to reflect more shades of the rainbow and more shades of good and evil.”
The desire to tell stories that represent the world as it should be but without shying away from those elements that made the Grimms’ tales frightening for the ages is what makes Chainani’s latest book so unusual and alluring.
“There are tragic endings and things like that,” he says of his work. “But to me, it’s reflecting the world with more of an eye to what I wish it was, or what it is that we fail to see sometimes because we’re blinded by our own biases and prejudices.”
This intersection of an idealized world with a smattering of reality and good old-fashioned horror is on full display in Beasts and Beauty. Chainani’s fairy tales still feature bad things happening to good people, especially to children, but he also changes key story elements. Chainani’s Snow White is still the most beautiful in the land, but she’s also a person of color. His Little Red Riding Hood is not afraid to stand up to a society that views her as little more than in service to the patriarchy’s mindless fears and prejudices.
The School for Good and Evil was also an attempt to turn upside down the normal concept of storytelling, which he likens to “[Harry] Potter being told from both Harry’s and Voldemort’s point of view,” so you never know quite who to root for and who to fear.
He also wanted to “have that kind of Game of Thrones experience where you felt slightly unsteady. Anything could happen. Your favorite character can die at any point…and you didn’t know who was going to win at the end because all perspectives were equally valid.”