A Plea to Leave the Stories Alone

Someone gave my kids a 3-pack of cheap paperback picture books for Christmas last year.

I have nothing against paperback books in general, and I’m not trying to say this person was cheap. I mean the quality of the books and the content itself was cheap.

Maybe the best way to say it is that these are the types of children’s books that are easy to write (ouch.) or, maybe worse, the type of book that’s only worth reading (or listening to) when very young.

I like what C.S. Lewis says in a number of different ways, and that, essentially, is that a children’s book only worth reading as a child is not really worth reading at all.

One of these books was a softened version of Hansel and Gretel. There were a number of changes made to make it more child-friendly, and what good I felt the original story could communicate was removed altogether.

The wicked step-mother and the hunger were entirely removed. The children were not abandoned by an endlessly (emotionally) battered father, but were simply lost. Hansel was not resourceful and protective of himself and his sister, merely curious or careless, letting the crumbs fall– and foolish too, imagining they would be there in the morning. (The original, you remember, had him using stones at first.)

When we got to the the witch was where my husband began to object. He has different ideas than me (our kids get a double wammy) of what wrecks a children’s story– traditional or otherwise.

Gretel knew the old woman was a witch because she made the children work ever so hard, carrying water and firewood. Whenever Jay was compelled to read the story (because we kept forgetting to make it disappear) he changed the wording to say the children were very good to help such an old woman with her heavy chores.

In the end, again, it isn’t the children’s cleverness or resourcefulness that “saves” them, but luck and the witch’s own clumsiness. And they find treasure somewhere as the house burns down around them and they bring it out with them. (Jay’s retelling always had the father scolding the children for not leaving the burning building at once).

I don’t even remember the original story having treasure at the end.

~ ~ ~

I like retellings, Just not when they change the essence of the story.

I like “age appropriate” versions of traditional tales. My 4-year-old doesn’t need to know yet that Snow White’s stepmother, the queen, wanted to eat her liver and lungs. It is enough that she wanted her dead.

My 2-year-old doesn’t need to know that a woman is being accused of eating her own children. That will not add anything to the story for her.

The stories were originally entertainment for adults, and it is only natural that some things should be softened or omitted when they are used as entertainment for children. But that doesn’t mean they should be changed to be “safe” by “modern” standards.

Those standards seem to mean children being allowed to do as they like, however they like, and to expect deus ex machina to make everything thing turn out best for the cutest/sweetest/most mischievous youngster involved.

I think fairy tales are good for children because they teach natural consequences (of not-listening, especially), and show persevering and resourcefulness in unpromising situations.

The right stories show faithfulness and heroism in action, and (especially in the woman-centered tales) show the importance of even little, every-day things in turning the great wheels of “fate.”

The traditional tales also emphasize the importance of hard work.

The Six Swans (our current fairy tale from the library) is a good example of these things.

While knowing your children is always important, I think these aren’t things children need to be “protected” from.

If they’re not ready even for a watered-down version of the story, you should just wait.

Wait till you can use the real thing, and then emphasize what important to you, like taking care of siblings– something inherent both in Hansel and Gretel and The Six Swans.

I’ve even used the Disney Snow White, pointing out to my 4-year-old that all the hard work her stepmother made her do prepared Snow White to be a good helper to the dwarves when she went to live with them.

Good stories will have something positive that can be emphasized and encouraged in our children, showing them (concretely) what it looks like, so they have a point of reference when we (inevitably) refer to it in the abstract later.

Just don’t feed them twaddle that only reinforces their naturally selfish tendencies.

3 thoughts on “A Plea to Leave the Stories Alone

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    That being said, we never did read a lot of fairy tales. We read mostly contemporary works from the library (such as Mercer Mayer, American Girl stories, etc).

    We had Jack and the Beanstalk but I hated the story so much that we didn’t even bother reading it.

    I agree that Hansel and Gretl had some very redeeming qualities in it, as do 3 Little Pigs and 3 Bears. It’s a shame about the mean stepmother but you are certainly right about the resourcefulness of the children. AND of course, the message about strangers.

    You are not the only one to write about the sweetening up about fairy tales.

    Good post!

  2. icky. I don’t like those kinds of books, either. Charlotte Mason called it “twaddle”.
    I agree, though, some fairy tales are just plain horror. So to tone *that* down a bit, I don’t mind.

  3. I really like this post. Hansel and Gretl, as well as anything scary or dangerous, was banned from me when I was a child (including Smurfs!) I understand now that my mother was assuming her own needs and preferences for me (and how can you do otherwise?) but my own are much different – I prefer the hard, difficult, yet true and teachable story.

    I study and teach about culture, and I think fairy tales held the function of teaching children values they MUST learn if they were to survive in the culture they were in. They might not always translate well into our own culture, and I wonder if our media saturation has something to do with that. We’re used to hearing terrible, horrible stories, both true and fictional on TV, news, CSI, etc. Its everywhere. But there are few lessons or values imbedded in these “stories.” We are left with the trills of empty fear, or the trills of empty self-centered “twaddle” as you say. I wonder if parents try to to make fairy tales fit into these two catagories and, of course, prefer the safe to the scary, not realizing there could be another layer.

    On the other hand…I see no good reason to play games about dying from plague – what lesson do we have there?

    So…I love this post! I wish I had written it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *