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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 final 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 take on new adventures. But the day after he handed in the manuscript, COVID-19 happened, and then he spent most of 2020 largely indoors.
What did he do during the lockdown? He wrote a new book, called Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales, which has just been released.
Like The School for Good and Evil, which aimed to make the adventure genre better, 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 children to view heroes and villains in a completely different, non-Disney way.
“I grew up with Disney adventures almost exclusively in our house … and then my whole view of good and evil is shaped by Disney, and I will honestly say that I think most people in my generation and beyond have their morale shaped by Disney, which is why I’m not surprised that our policies are so polarized, “Chainani explains in an interview with CNET’s I’m So Obsessed podcast.
“Because when you have such a clear good guy and bad guy in all our storytelling … it means one side has to live and one side has to die, and you’re not going to make accommodations for either.”
As a Harvard University student, Chainani re-read the original classic fairy tales and learned how much “room for ambiguity and good and gray and in the spectrum between good and evil there is.” That mindset led to the School of Good and Evil in 2013, which tells the story of 12-year-old friends Sophie and Agatha, who attend a magic school where children are trained to become fairytale heroes or villains (Evers and Nevers).
Chainani says he would abolish “this idea that we label the bad kids” the bad kids “without understanding who they are and what they are about and understanding that we all have a different way of approaching life on.”
“When you start experimenting and giving people the chance to mess with their identity and experience life from the opposite perspective, hell will break loose,” he says with a laugh. “But in a way, it will 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 to an original film set to be released in 2022. It will be 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 giant adventure, spectacular action,” Chainani told his fans.
With Beast and Beauty, Chainani decided to “blow up the fairy tales and retell them as if I were 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 Little Red Riding Hood is about how the city’s most beautiful girl is marked every spring as a victim to a pack of wolves / boys in what he describes as the “ultimate #MeToo experience.”
I also talked to Chainani about his perception of some of the other adventures and about his current obsessions, which include watching Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking again. “It’s a kind of reminder that in this innovative tech world, where we always focus on the new, new, new, sometimes the old traditions were there for a reason, and we had to look back on 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.