Guest Post: Author Michael Leali on Retellings & His New Middle Grade Novel Matteo

By Michael Leali

As much as I’m a reader, I also love movies and television. As I recently told my boyfriend, “I’m addicted to story,” and I have been for as long as I can remember. Growing up, Disney animated features like The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin were some of my absolute favorites.

The stories I consumed, in many ways, informed my thinking and behavior as a young person. Sure, there were silly things like wanting to fly on magic carpets and eat bananas with bears in the jungle, but there were detrimental influences too. As a young gay boy (who had no words for how he was feeling at the time), the repetitive prince/princess romance narrative confused and saddened me. I saw stereotypically masculine boy characters and felt like I’d never be like them. In fact, I often related far more to the singing, baking, daydreaming princesses. As much as I loved those stories—the music, the whimsy, the imagination—I didn’t see myself in these timeless tales that have captivated minds for centuries. And that sucked.

As a writer, I’m very interested in who gets to tell stories and whose stories get told.

Michael at Anderson’s Bookshop with a display of The Civil War of Amos Abernathy.

My debut novel, The Civil War of Amos Abernathy (HarperChildren’s, 2022), takes a close look at LGBTQ+ representation in 19th century American history. It is largely inspired by my lived experience as a historical reenactor, a homeschooled kid, a gay cisgender boy, and a person who grew up in a conservative Christian household. Amos’ story came from my desire to give the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized identities space to be seen and heard in American history which has long erased, diminished, and silenced our existence.

Unlike my debut, Matteo (HarperChildren’s, May 23, 2023) isn’t inspired by history (though my titular protagonist and I share nearly as many characteristics as I do with Amos and his friends). Instead of revisiting who is telling history, I explore my relationship to a classic story. This is my reimagining of Pinocchio, a fairy tale that continues to fascinate audiences long after its inception nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, as recently evidenced by Disney’s and Guilermo del Toro’s respective films.

I first got the idea to write Matteo in my final semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I got my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I had recently written a critical thesis that examined masculinity and its representation in children’s literature. As a gay man, I’d spent a good deal of my life questioning my masculinity and comparing myself to other guys. I worried I wasn’t “boy” enough. I was self-conscious about the way I walked, how I sat, how I talked, about my interests and, of course, my attraction to boys. I experienced extreme pain, shame, and guilt. As an adult, I’ve made it a mission to help young people, especially LGBTQ+ kids, do away with those feelings as much as possible by providing them with narratives I didn’t have access to.

Initially, I wanted to write a story that explored the concept of “boy” and trying to be “enough” for parents, friends, and society. The more I meditated on that concept, the more I felt drawn to Pinocchio and his quest to become a “real boy.” In the original story, the little wooden puppet wants to turn into flesh and blood, but what happens if you’re already a real boy and you still feel that way? I was like, “What even is a ‘real’ boy?”

Not only did Pinocchio seem like the perfect vehicle to explore these questions, but much like my feelings about reclaiming history for marginalized communities in The Civil War of Amos Abernathy, this was an opportunity to reimagine a beloved story through a queer lens. Stories like Pinocchio seep into our collective consciousness, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. When writers reinvent classic tales and myths, they breathe new possibilities into timeless characters who were often white, able-bodied, straight, and cisgender. Remixing classics, legends, fairy tales, and myths through different lenses and identities tells young readers, implicitly and explicitly, that this story belongs to them too.

Matteo, though, isn’t a straightforward retelling. Instead of revisiting the exact plot or characters of Pinocchio, I took a different approach. I thought about my favorite elements from the original text (I went back and read a translation of the original by Carlo Collodi) and the various film interpretations I’ve seen. I thought about what I loved, what intrigued me, and where I felt like there was room for the story to expand.

Michael’s revision grid for Matteo.

All that being said, my first draft of Matteo was still very influenced by the structure and plot of Pinocchio, but it lacked the grounding and emotional journey I’d hoped to build for my young, gay protagonist struggling with his sense of boyishness. So, under the wise advice of my editor, I went back to the drawing board, tore the story down to the studs, and rewrote the whole thing from scratch. The published version contains about one cumulative chapter’s worth of text from my original draft.

In pulling away from the familiar plot of Pinocchio and focusing more on the intention and abstract possibilities of the original plot elements, I found my story coming to life in new and exciting ways. Matteo’s nose didn’t need to grow when he lied, but the idea of unwanted growth and the physical impact of dishonesty did have a place in my story. Matteo didn’t need to get swallowed by a literal monstrous whale, but he did need to confront a whale all his own. Matteo didn’t need a blue fairy to magically transform and guide him, but he did need a friend who might just have blue hair.

I’ve been a longtime fan of retellings, but what I discovered through my first foray into writing a retelling is just how many degrees of transformation exist. For example, I absolutely adore our very own Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Sisters of the Neversea (Heartdrum, 2021), which is completely reminiscent of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and simultaneously turns the story entirely on its head through the lens of two very different (and delightful) protagonists. The characters’ names and the setting are largely the same as the source text, but the story is gorgeously original and it honors the representation of marginalized identities in a way that the original novel severely lacks. This, to me, is a perfect retelling.

As I was drafting Matteo, I worried I was straying too far from the familiar and the expectations of a retelling, but the more I thought about the story of Pinocchio in the abstract, the more freedom I found to explore the narrative I wanted to tell. Aside from my cricket-inspired character (his name is Cricket—Highly original), my characters don’t share names with any of the original Pinocchio characters. The setting and plot are wildly different. But the heart of Pinocchio is there.

When I started drafting this post, I wrestled with the question, “Why do we retell stories?”

Here’s what I think: we retell stories that are beloved because they are just that. The power of retelling a beloved story is that it provides space for people of many identities, often marginalized, to see themselves in something beloved. When a beloved story is expanded or reclaimed for a marginalized community, we allow ourselves as individuals to be beloved. We make known what was true all along, but never (or rarely) validated through narrative. We tell the world that we are worthy of taking up space. That we get to own a part of history, myth, fairytale, or legend just as much as anyone else.

So, my dear fellow story addict, if there is a narrative dear to you, one that you connect to but don’t see yourself represented in, one with which you have a complicated love/hate relationship, perhaps it’s time you retold the story. Give it fresh life. Show the world that you and your community belong to beloved narratives, because that’s the truth.

Cynsational Notes

Michael Leali is a writer and educator. He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When he’s not dreaming up stories, he’s probably playing a board game, eating cheese, or grading papers somewhere in the suburbs of Chicago.

He is the author of the Lambda Literary Award finalist and Golden Kite Award winning novel The Civil War of Amos Abernathy (HarperChildren’s, 2022), Matteo (HarperChildren’s, 2023), and The Truth About Triangles (HarperChildren’s, 2024). Michael identifies as white, cisgender, gay, and uses he/him pronouns. Learn more about Michael at and follow him on Instagram and Twitter @michaelleali.