Study Guide

Briar Rose

By Jane Yolen

Briar Rose Introduction

Nothing quite grabs your attention like when your beloved grandmother mentions that she owns a secret castle and then kicks the bucket. That goes double when dear old grandma makes you swear on her not-yet-dug grave to find the aforementioned castle. Of course, it's a little stressful when grams neglects to provide you with certain details—details like the castle's address, or even what country it's in.

Is the castle just a place in her imagination? Or is she leaving you an inheritance beyond your wildest dreams?

If this sounds like the stuff that fairy tales are made of, that's because it is: Briar Rose is a novel in a series of modern books inspired by classic fairy tales. In this case, the source material is Sleeping Beauty, which is woven together with a fictional story about a Jewish woman, Gemma, who survived the Holocaust. Not your typical Disney fare, we know.

As it turns out, there was indeed a castle in Gemma's past. We're not going to swear to it on her grave, though. That would be tacky.

Fresh off of writing another book about the Holocaust (Devil's Arithmetic, in 1988), author Jane Yolen published Briar Rose in 1992. It's just one of more than 300—yeah, you read that number right—books she has written since her first title was printed in 1963. A highly decorated author of young adult literature, fantasy novels, and science fiction, Yolen has won the Caldecott Medal twice, among many other awards. So you know this one is going to be worth your time.

We can't vouch for the other 299, but we hear they're pretty good, too.

What is Briar Rose About and Why Should I Care?

Most people think of Sleeping Beauty as a children's story. We blame Walt Disney, whose animated version still looms large in pop culture long after its 50th anniversary.

In 2014, Disney gave Sleeping Beauty a makeover, releasing a much darker version of the story called Maleficent. But Briar Rose already had one up on them, 'cause there's only one thing scarier than Angelina Jolie with pleather horns, and that's Adolf Hitler.

Thing is, a fairy tale about the Holocaust—which is what this novel is, at least in part—is not so strange as it may seem on the surface. After all, the original stories collected by folklorists hundreds of years ago were often very dark. In the old Italian version of the story, for instance, Sleeping Beauty gives birth to two children in her sleep.

Even Angelina Jolie hasn't done that. Yet.

If you're wondering why these fairy stories were so crazy, one theory is that they helped regular people cope with all the fear and suffering in their lives. In Briar Rose, that's exactly what Gemma does with the story of Sleeping Beauty, which she recreates in her own way to work through the trauma she experienced during the Holocaust.

Bonus: turning her terrible biography into a fairy tale meant that she could share her story with her grandkids without scaring their socks off. Double win.

Briar Rose reminds us of those Russian nesting dolls: it's a story within a story within a story. (There might even be a fourth story in there somewhere. Sorry, we lost count.)

The many stories it has to tell—the retelling of the fairy tale; the struggles of people like Gemma and Josef, who were persecuted during the Holocaust; and the story of Becca, who is investigating her heritage—have a lot to say about history, fear, and humans' remarkable ability to persevere when the going gets tough.

So the next time you hear someone say that fairy tales are for babies, be sure to set 'em straight by pointing them to a copy of Briar Rose. Pleather horns are optional, but we think you'll find they add a certain flair.

Briar Rose Resources


Jane Yolen's Official Site
On which she refers to herself as the Aesop of the 20th century, cause she's just humble like that.

She's A Poet and You Didn't Know It
Yolen's Poetry Foundation page has links to some of her poems.

Articles and Interviews

An Interview with the Author
Questions. Answers. You know the drill.

An Interview About Briar Rose
Some very interesting tidbits here, Shmoopers.


Jane Yolen, In the Flesh
Here's an interview with the author from 2014.

Jane Yolen, at an Incredibly Silly Conference
Jane Yolen went to an event called FaerieCon, and verily, it is incredible.


Hey, It's the Audiobook!
Or an excerpt of it, anyway. And, no, that's not Jane Yolen reading it.


Meet the Author
Jane Yolen's so thoughtful, she even brought you a bouquet.

Check Out the Cover
Giant red rose? Check. Barbed Wire? Check. Yep, this book cover has it all.