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Author Soman Chainani has spent 10 years working on his children's book series The School for Good and Evil. He finished the sixth, and last, book in the series, One True King, in March 2020, and says he was ready to take the rest of the year to relax and head out on new adventures. But the day after he turned in the manuscript, COVID-19 happened and so he spent most of 2020 pretty much indoors.
What did he do during lockdown? He wrote a new book, called Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales, which has just been released.
Just like The School for Good and Evil, which aimed to upend the fairy tale genre, Beasts and Beauty reinvents 12 classic stories, including Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Peter Pan. There's a common thread in his approach: Chainani says he thinks of fairy tales as "survival guides to life" and he wants kids to consider the heroes and villains in a completely different way, non-Disney way.
"I grew up with Disney fairy tales almost exclusively in our house ... and so my entire viewpoint of good and evil is shaped by Disney, and I would honestly say I think most people in my generation and above have their morality shaped by Disney, which is why I'm not surprised that our politics is so polarized," Chainani explains in an interview for CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast.
"Because when you have such a clear good guy and evil guy in all our storytelling ... it means that one side has to live and one side has to die, and you're not going to make any accommodations for either."
As a college student at Harvard University, Chainani reread the original classic fairy tales and learned how much "room for ambiguity and good and grayness and in-the-spectrum-between-good-and-evil there is." That thinking led to The School for Good and Evil in 2013, which tells the story of 12-year-old friends Sophie and Agatha who go to a magical school where children are trained to become fairy-tale heroes or villains (Evers and Nevers).
Chainani says he wanted to upend "this idea that we brand the evil kids 'the bad kids' without understanding who they are and what they're about and understanding that we all have a different way of approaching life."
"Once you start experimenting, and giving people the chance to mess with their identity and experience life from the opposite perspective, all hell's gonna break loose," he says with a laugh. "But in a way, that's going to ultimately lead to a more positive reconstruction of the world."
The series has sold more than 2.5 million copies and Netflix is adapting The School for Good and Evil into an original movie set for release in 2022. It's being directed by Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids and Spy) and stars Charlize Theron, Kerry Washington, Michelle Yeoh and Laurence Fishburne. "It's going to be a big huge fairy-tale, action spectacular," Chainani told his fans.
With Beast and Beauty, Chainani decided to "blow up the fairy tales and retell them as if I was the Brothers Grimm in the 1700s and I could see what the world would look like now." That's why Snow White is the only black girl in an all-white kingdom and Red Riding Hood is about how the most beautiful girl in town is marked for sacrifice every spring to a pack of wolves/boys in what he describes as the "ultimate #MeToo experience."
I also talked with Chainani about his take on some of the other fairy tales and about his current obsessions, which include rewatching Netflix's Indian Matchmaking. "It's sort of a reminder that in this newfangled tech world where we're always focused on the new, new, new, sometimes the old traditions were there for a reason and we should look back at them."
You can subscribe to I'm So Obsessed on your favorite podcast app. In each episode, Patrick Holland or I catch up with an artist, actor or creator to learn about work, career and current obsessions.