10 Spectacular Modern Fabulists


We don’t know about you, but there’s something about winter, and particularly the holidays, that makes us crave fables and fairy tales — though whether it has to do with wanting to recapture the feeling of stories we heard in snug beds as children or whether it’s related to the communal family table, we’re not sure. Though it’s by no means a new trend, we feel that we’ve been seeing the advent of more and more fabulists following in the tradition of Aesop and La Fontaine — or maybe just writers who incorporate fables into their oeuvre. Indeed, today marks the release of the first English translation of Gianni Rodari’s wonderful Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto from Melville House, which will satisfy our cravings — at least for tonight. For tomorrow and the next day, click through to read our list of ten modern fabulists guaranteed to whisk you — and the whole family — away.

Gianni Rodari ( Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto )

In Rodari’s newly translated novel, a wealthy baron with 24 illnesses (one for each of the 24 banks that he owns) discovers he can live forever — as long as his name is properly recited over and over. The resultant tale is a wonderful and weird fable about fame, ingenuity and media spectacles. By the way: we heard that this Friday, if you go into participating bookstores and are one of the first people to shout out “LAMBERTO! LAMBERTO LAMBERTO!” you will be rewarded with a free copy — and have contributed to Baron Lamberto’s everlasting life. Not only that, but for every 10 people who tweet #LambertoLambertoLamberto, Melville House will drop the price of the book until it reaches one cent. Now that’s a fabulistic marketing strategy we can get behind.

Italo Calvino ( Cosmicomics , Italian Folktales , etc.)

After Calvino had written his very first novel, noted Italian author Cesare Pavese described him fondly as a “squirrel of the pen” who “climbed into the trees, more for fun than fear, to observe partisan life as a fable of the forest.” In Cosmicomics, Calvino turns a series of scientific facts — sometimes true, and sometimes less than true — into lovely short stories, often featuring non-human characters acting very much like humans.

David Sedaris ( Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk )

Though many of Sedaris’ razor sharp real-life stories could be considered modern fables in their own right, in this book, he turns to the traditional animal figures to make us laugh and teach us a lesson. But not to worry — Sedaris’ fables are just as cynical and witty as his comic memoir writing, and way cuter.

Helen Oyeyemi ( Mr. Fox )

In Mr. Fox, Oyeyemi re-imagines the Bluebeard tale — and not just once, but over and over again as she plays out a love triangle between St. John Fox, his wife Daphne, and his semi-imaginary muse Mary Foxe, all appearing in different incarnations. The lesson here, that we should be gentle to each other, is one everyone could stand to learn again.

Jon Scieszka ( Squids Will Be Squids )

The writer of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales has teamed up with illustrator Lane Smith once again — this time tackling the fable. But of course, these are no average fables. Imbued with Scieszka’s trademark wacky humor, this book will each you lessons like: “Just because you have a lot of stuff, don’t think you’re so special,” “Everyone knows frogs can’t skateboard, but it’s kind of sad that they believe everything they see on TV,” and of course, “He who smelt it, dealt it.” Perhaps not the morals you expect from a traditional fable, but true (and useful!) nonetheless.

Téa Obreht ( The Tiger’s Wife )

In Natalia’s journey through the ruins of former Yugoslavia, in search of clues about her grandfather’s death, you will meet a host of characters worthy of books all to themselves: the deaf-mute Muslim girl who falls desperately in love with a tiger, the deathless man, the bear-man. All of these is draped in dazzling, lush prose that makes you feel as though you’re walking through an enchanted forest half the time. Which is okay by us.

Angela Carter ( The Bloody Chamber )

Another writer who reinterprets classic fairy tales and fables with her own, dark twist — and the second writer on this list to tackle the Bluebeard tale, Carter is a well-loved fabulist whose female characters bring down the house. One of our favorites is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story, which begins “My father lost me to The Beast at cards.” Yikes.

George Orwell ( Animal Farm )

Orwell’s allegorical fable of a workers’ revolution gone awry is one of the most famous — and most important — modern fables of our time. The downtrodden animals at Manor Farm rise up against their evil human master and take charge — but they may be more human than they think, something they can only find out when faced with the reality of power.

George Ade ( Fables in Slang , Forty Modern Fables , etc.)

Though Ade is a little less contemporary than some of the others on this list, he is one of the first fabulists to play with the form, and a writer counted by some as the first modern American humorist. Extremely prolific and rather hilarious, his “fables in slang” are much more like fables in the colloquial tongue, something still rather unheard of at the time. Plus, in a list of modern fabulists, could we really leave out the man with a book entitled Forty Modern Fables? No, we could not.

Carol Emshwiller ( Carmen Dog )

In this strange, savagely funny feminist fable, women start to turn into animals as animals start to turn into women. The men, for their part, are mostly bewildered. As Pooch, a golden setter, begins to turn into a woman, she absconds with her previous owner’s baby when said owner turns into a snapping turtle. More importantly, now in woman form, Pooch can aspire to what she really wants: to sing Carmen.