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8 writers share the fairytales that mean the most to them

London Literature Festival is taking a closer look at fairytales for its theme ‘Once Upon Our Times’, so we asked participating writers for their personal favourite

Photograph: Luke Waller
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The fairytales many of us grew up with are filled with overwhelming darkness. A little girl is swallowed up by a wolf, three bears have their house burgled, children are abandoned in the woods by their parents. 

These tales are told, and retold to children across generations, who become so familiar with them that they barely blink at the horror. Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel cease to be just stories, and become the foundation on which others are built. They have the clear binary of good, and evil, cowardice and courageousness, modesty and hubris, all just waiting to be transformed into something new. 

This year’s London Literature Festival 2019 is delving deep into the world of fairytales for its theme ‘Once Upon Our Times’, exploring how they travel from oral folklore, to children’s books to contemporary fiction. Ahead of the festival’s launch, we asked eight of its participating authors and poets one simple question: What’s your favourite fairytale?

Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival runs from Thu Oct 17-Oct 27. Find events and ticket details here

Illustrator: Luke Waller 

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London Literature Festival stars pick their favourite fairytale

Photograph: Hamish Brown

Lemn Sissay

“Hansel and Gretel” is a fairytale by The Brothers Grimm. Due to the onset of famine, a “wicked” stepmother took her husband’s children into the woods and left them there. The children overheard her planning so they collected enough pebbles to leave a trail and eventually found their way back home. Enraged, the stepmother locks them away. They escape to the forest… I like this dark fairytale. It shows the difficult journey through childhood. There is no perfect childhood but we must leave pebbles so that we can remember what happened.’ Lemn Sissay presents his new memoir  ‘Lemn Sissay: My Name Is Why’. Fri Oct 18. £15.

Photograph: courtesy of the Southbank Centre

Heather Morris

“Little Red Riding Hood”. When my eldest child was a toddler, this story had to be read to him every night. It scared him terribly, but he loved being scared and the goodnight cuddles always settled him. Now a man in his early forties, he is still a lover of horror stories, and I have a beautiful memory.’ Author of ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, Heather Morris discusses ‘Cilka’s Journey’, her sequel to the global bestseller. Oct 22. £15-£35. 

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Photograph: Phil Crow

Michael Morpurgo

‘An epic of a fairytale – “Jack and the Beanstalk”. No other fairytale is so exciting, has such a great song, and it has the best ending of any of them. It would make a great movie. I will play Jack!’ Michael Morpurgo’s ‘I Believe In Unicorns’ is brought to life in a performance by Wizard Presents, Oct 22-23. £16. The show on Oct 22 is followed by a Q&A with the author.

Photograph: Mark Rusher

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Goldilocks is the ultimate bad girl. Growing up in Uganda on folk tales whose girl characters were oppressed little orphans, pretty brats or evil ugly half sisters, “Goldilocks” was a delight. Forget the broken chair, eaten porridge or trespassing; it was all about her curiosity, comfort, palate and rest, and when caught, she legged it. It was also the emotions – Goldilocks’s glee as she had her way; the bears’ disbelief, dismay and shock at being burgled.’ Author of ‘Kintu’ and ‘Manchester Happened’, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and  Booker Prize 2019 nominee Bernardine Evaristo discuss ideas behind their latest books. Oct 20. £15.

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Photograph: Gokhan Celem

Elif Shafak

‘My favourite fairytale is “Town Musicians of Bremen”. I was very young when I heard this story for the first time. On the surface it is a simple story of four domestic animals who, after years of mistreatment, decide to leave the only place they have ever known. But it is much more than that. This is a story of outcasts, of creatures that do not quite belong and find each other and become unlikely friends, “companions of the road”. Above all, it is a universal story of home, exile, freedom and the right to dignity.’ Elif Shafak will be joined by writer Louise Doughty to discuss their new novels. Elif is the author of ‘10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World’, shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019. Oct 22. £15.

Photograph: Fatiimaa

Sharlene Teo

‘For its surreal mischief, I’ve always loved the Chinese fairytale of Chang’e, who either accidentally or intentionally swallowed the pill of immortality she was meant to share with her husband Houyi. This disobedient and wonderfully unruly woman then floated to the moon and still lives there. On the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, the mid-autumn festival is widely celebrated and people eat mooncakes in Chang’e’s honour.’ Sharlene Teo has written a specially commissioned short story to be performed at ‘Once Upon Our Times: Fairy Tales Retold’. Stories by Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Marlon James and Daisy Johnson will also feature. Oct 27. £20.

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Photograph: courtesy of, Southbank Centre

Daisy Johnson

‘No fairy story exists in solitude and I cannot think of certain stories without also thinking of the way they have been retold. I will always love “Little Red Riding Hood” and never quite be able to remember who I wanted to triumph, the wolf or the girl with her wolfskin coat. I can feel what it is to walk that shaded forest, to never know quite who anyone is.’ Daisy Johnson’s specially commissioned short story will also be read at ‘Once Upon Our Times: Fairy Tales Retold’. Oct 27. £20.

Photograph: @TeneeAttoh

Raymond Antrobus

“Hansel and Gretel” made a big impact on me. Twice it happened when I was a kid. A stranger invited me into their house and a Hansel and Gretel-shape caution lit my mind. Also, I travelled to school alone from a very young age and it was the breadcrumb image from Hansel and Gretel that kept me returning home the same route I came. My own version of that was to put ribbons on certain lampposts.’ Raymond Antrobus and fellow award-winning poets perform their latest works in ‘d/Deaf Republic: Poets on d/Deafness’ as part of Poetry International. Sat Oct 19. £10.

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