This delightfully disturbing collection of folk tales, fairy tales, and Bible stories from Ortberg (Texts from Jane Eyre, 2014), an expansion of her series Children's Stories Made Horrific from the cult-favorite website The Toast, delivers on chills, laughs, and much more.
A version of “The Little Mermaid” that is more concerned with cultural perceptions of property rights than singing crabs. A retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” in which the former title character is a dreadful bore and the latter is unbearably pedantic. A reimagining of The Velveteen Rabbit starring a far more ambitious stuffed animal than the depressing original version. There is plenty of humor to be had here, with Ortberg’s signature biting wit and nerdy whimsy out in full force (“Daughters are as good a thing as any to populate a kingdom with—if you’ve got them on hand. They don’t cost much more than their own upkeep, which you’re on the hook for regardless, so it’s not a bad strategy to put them to use as quickly as possible”). Pointing out the darker aspects of children’s stories and Disney movies has become as much a cliché as the original princesses and fairy godmothers were, but Ortberg’s point of view is thoughtful, insightful, and unpretentious. Gender is entirely fluid, as characters debate “which of us gets to be wife,” there is a girl named Paul, a brother named Sylvia, and “daughters” who use “he/him” pronouns. One story that borrows from the Grimm stories “The Six Swans” and “The Twelve Brothers” comments on the different ways men and women are subjected to suffering. Riffs on Frog and Toad Are Friends, “Cinderella,” King Lear, and “The Frog Prince” reflect on abusive relationship dynamics. If anything, Ortberg doesn’t twist the stories so much as illuminate how layered and complicated they really are.
A wholly satisfying blend of silliness, feminist critique, and deft prose makes this a collection of bedtime stories that will keep you up at night for all the right reasons.