Fairy tales are a staple of most children’s reading experience – but should they be? Children’s storyteller Baz Macdonald wonders whether it’s time that we retired fairy tales for good.
It would be difficult to find anyone in New Zealand who doesn’t know the stories of Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood. We were all raised on the fables of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, whether through the original stories, modernised retellings, or film and TV adaptations. Regardless of how you first encountered them, it’s unlikely you made it through childhood without becoming intimately familiar with these centuries-old stories.
These fables have become a fixture of western culture, and as such we unblinkingly introduce each new generation to their magic. But perhaps we should blink before reading these stories to our kids. Maybe we should be questioning whether the 19th century values they were written to impart are the lessons we want or need in the 21st century.
I have the privilege of being a children’s storyteller and have hosted a weekly story time in Wellington for almost three years. My primary concern when choosing books each week is to make sure the session will be fun and engaging for the kids, but a secondary consideration is always how inclusive the stories are. I try hard to make sure the books I read don’t reinforce negative stereotypes and archetypes, particularly around gender.
As such, I don’t include fairy tales in my story time sessions.
This omission has never been act of protest, or an attempt to take a stand against these books. In fact, I have a lot of my own nostalgia for them. Rather, I don’t include them because there is little they do that modern children’s books don’t do equally well, if not better. The fact is, for every Brothers Grimm fable there are a thousand books that tell equally magical stories but do so in a way that is far more relatable to modern kids, and without the inclusion of problematic stereotypes and archetypes.
Take for example, the quintessential fairy tale, Cinderella. Ignoring for a moment just how alienating the agrarian, medieval setting of the book can be for kids, it’s clear that Cinderella has several wonderful themes such as courage in the face of adversity and the importance of kindness. But underlying these relevant messages are a number of problematic ones – like the damsel construct, in which Cinderella’s only salvation can come from being rescued by a man.
In place of Cinderella, I can name a handful of modern picture books which contain all of the same positive attributes, without any of the negative. Take Pig the Pug, a series of books about a selfish pug whose greed and envy hurts all of the other dogs around him. In each book, Pig is confronted with the consequences of his negative actions and is humbled by the experience. These books are just as whimsical as Cinderella (I mean who doesn’t love animals acting like humans?), but keep the kids more engaged, and impart the same lessons without the retrograde themes.
I’m sure this sounds to many of you like I am being preachy. But the truth is I actively try to avoid picking stories that try to teach lessons – and that includes fairy tales, which are inherently preachy. Instead I look for books which focus on being entertaining for kids, but do so in inclusive ways. For instance, the Witch with an Itch series focuses on telling hilarious and magical stories, but with a diverse cast of characters, in which both girls and boys are represented as equals.
Of course there is merit to having books with specific lessons and morals to impart. They can be a useful tool for parents, who can pick books to reinforce ideas relevant to the stage of their child’s development. But how appropriate are these fables in preparing children for the modern world. Sure, the theme of stranger danger in Hansel and Gretel is still relevant – but is the delivery, with its disturbing tale of a stepmother who wants her husband to take the kids into the woods and kill them? Why not use a modern book that teaches the same lesson, but without the murdering children with axes and ovens?
When I tell other storytellers about my ‘no fairy tales’ policy, I tend to be met with shock. They often react as if it is an act of sacrilege on par with spitting on a flag.
But why should avoiding these books be sacrilege? What do we owe them? It seems to me that we are retaining them simply because they’re classics. I understand the feeling – I agree that it’s important to preserve classic literature. But is forcing outdated stereotypes on incredibly impressionable children the right way to do so?
A huge amount of effort is put into trying to alter these stories, to make them more palatable to a new generation of readers. But no matter how they are adapted, you cannot change some of the most problematic plot points without it becoming a completely different story: Cinderella will still get saved by the Prince, Sleeping Beauty will still get kissed awake (without consent, might I add), and step-mothers of all kinds will continue to try and murder young women. There is no limit to the stories we can tell, especially to children whose imaginations know no bounds. So maybe instead of trying to update these stories, we should be creating and telling the new fables of our time – ones which reflect the values we try to live by today.
In the end, the problem isn’t that kids are reading fairy tales. It’s that these are our best-known stories for children. Ask any kid about Cinderella and they will be able to recite the story beat for beat. But ask them who Malala Yousafzai is and of course they are not going to know. But if imparting information and lessons to kids is what you are looking to do, maybe Malala is the story your child should know by heart.
Malala actually released a picture book version of her story last year, and I would encourage any parent to read it with their children. It deftly, and with great sensitivity, illustrates the circumstances and challenges of Malala’s story in a way kids can understand. A book like this arms kids with knowledge about the challenges of the world they actually live in, rather than that of a peasant living in 19th century rural Germany.
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