Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for my two-week absence. Little E’s magical fairyland daycare that I wrote about here turned out to be not a magical fairyland after all, and we found ourselves, extremely suddenly, without childcare. So I have been hard at work finishing up deadlines and winding up work while trying to keep my very confused three-year-old happy during an unexpected and challenging transition.
All of which brings me to the power of stories and, in particular, of fairy tales, which are great tools for kids during rough times.
Kids don’t seem to read fairy tales anymore. Parents sometimes feel like they’re drowning in a sea of kids’ books and in the overwhelm, it doesn’t always occur to us to pick up a copy of Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Plus, we always think, aren’t they terrifying? Doesn’t the hunstman kill the wolf and doesn’t the troll drown and do I really want to be reading these to my kids?
Yes. Yes you do.
Neil Gaiman put the power of these stories thus: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Children, particularly small children, live in a scary, uncertain world, where things can change quickly and they rarely have much control. People tell them how their day is going to go, what they’re going to eat, and how they are to behave, and they don’t always know what is going to happen to them next or what it will mean. They need stories where the brave hero comes through the dark, terrifying forest unscathed and where the troll will wash away down the river, never to be seen again. Parents like to protect children from dark ideas, but kids’ heads are already full of dark ideas. Giving a child a safe way to see those dark ideas expressed and to talk about them together is a positive way to help her realize that it’s okay to have those fears and to help her work through them with you.
It is true, however, that you should have a look at the book before you sit down to read it with your child. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are famously terrifying, particularly if you get your hands on a translation of the original, which features stories such as “How the Children Played at Slaughtering,” in which a boy cuts his brother’s throat and is then stabbed in anger by his mother, who has left the other brother alone in the bath, where he drowns. She hangs herself, naturally, and the father dies of grief. Then there are problems with sexism and chauvinism and the idea that girls must be rescued by handsome princes and that their value can be quantified by their looks and how sensitive they are to a pea under their mattress. So I do recommend a look through the fairy tales you plan to read to your children in advance and also that you use them* as a jumping-off point to talk about some of these ideas.
That said, how do you find good versions of fairy tales to read? The best way is to have your local librarian in the children’s section point you in the direction of the fairy tale section and pick some you know your kiddo(s) will enjoy (I don’t recommend the Disney versions, which come replete with their own negative messages). Sometimes it’s fun to take out a few different versions of the same story (most libraries have a few of the classics, often including spoofs and sequels that can be fun to read) and let them decide which one they like. I do have just a few favourites to recommend but mostly I think you should have a browse through your local selection and read the ones that catch your eye!
(1) This pen-and-ink-illustrated version of Chicken Little is great fun to read (just try to race through the cast of characters: “Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Turkey Lurkey, Piggy Wiggy, Rabbit Babbit, Natty Ratty, Froggy Woggy, and Roly and Poly Moley” — and that’s before they meet the large Foxy Loxy family!) and features an interesting twist, in which the wee poultry hero turns the tables on the sly fox family and no cute animals are eaten. You could also read the version in which the heroes are cooked in the villain’s stew if you think your kids are up for it!
(2) This telling of Little Red Riding Hood stands out because of Trina Schart Hyman’s rich and evocative illustrations. It’s not a sanitized version of the story by any stretch, though, so be prepared.
(3) Clever Jack Takes the Cake may not be a traditional fairy tale, but it is a fairy tale nonetheless, and great fun to read. The book will probably get its own post in time, but pick it up to find out how poor Jack is going to make a cake and get it to the castle in time for the bored princess’s birthday party, against the odds and using all his wits and resources.
(4) This lighthearted tale falls into the spinoff category, riffing on the familiar story of plucky little Jack stealing from the Giants high above. But kids will delight in the story of King Blah Blah Blah, Jack and his cheerleading friend the talking bean, and a “smallish giant kid” named Don.
(5) All of the books in this read-along “Noisy Picture Book” audiobook series are great: Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, and Little Red Hen. Each one comes with a CD, and the audio recordings are far better voice-acted than most children’s audiobooks, including sound effects and songs that even Tiny J can almost sing at eighteen months. We got Little E her own CD player (they’ve become so cheap now that they basically come free with cereal) and she loves to put these on and “read” along. The stories are funny, well illustrated, and pretty un-scary.
So hit up the library and fill yourselves up on tales of dragons, castles, sneaky wolves, and brave children! What are your kids’ favourite fairy tales?
*Perhaps not “How the Children Played at Slaughtering” specifically.