Fairy Tales: Zero Tolerance?

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA

boundLast week I wrote about the challenge of evaluating fairy tales for cultural authenticity and the tools that help meet that challenge. In this post I explore the question: should there be zero tolerance for cultural inaccuracies in fairy tales? I’ll by describing the process of evaluating a novel-length version of Cinderella set in China.

When the book Bound, by Donna Jo Napoli, arrived in my office I grabbed it to read immediately. I had previously read all Napoli’s novel-length versions of the fairy tales like Zel and Beast. These tales were favorites of mine. My students also had enjoyed them. I was eager to have a new book to booktalk for my teen literature class. I was especially interested in Bound since it was a Cinderella story set in China, so I started reading it with a positive view based on my previous experiences with the author and her books.
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Culturally Authentic Fairy Tales

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA

Fairy TaleEvaluating fairy tales can be a challenge especially if the setting is another culture or country. Serving on the Children’s Literature Assembly for the National Council of Teachers of English Committee for Notables Books in English Language Arts demonstrated that challenge to me.

Our committee read over 900 books to find the thirty we would list as Notables. One of the books we selected was a tale set in China that had been recast from a familiar European story. The new setting was a vehicle for the illustrator to retell the story with a Chinese setting and characters. After a thoughtful discussion we selected the book for our list. Later, one of our committee members learned from a colleague who had been born in China that the book had numerous errors. That colleague wrote, “I don’t see any rationale for setting the story in China except to exploit the Chinese culture. There are many cultural inaccuracies in the story.” The committee had a lengthy discussion over e-mail. We consulted other colleagues who had grown up in China. They all agreed that there were many cultural inaccuracies. Concerned about those inaccuracies and the erroneous portrait of Chinese culture that children would receive, we decided to remove the book from our Notables list. Fortunately, no articles reviewing the books on the list had yet been published.
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Exploring Fairy Tales Part II

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA

“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart.  Slowly this, too, is filled up.  What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow.  Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart” (Touch Magic by Jane Yolen, p.26).

Fairy tales can be “serious intruders into the heart,” however, children need adults to lead them to tales that have that potential. Children too often only experience the Disney versions of fairy tales. As I was growing up Disney movies popularized and sugar coated the fairy tales but did so in a way that took away the essential nature of the story and turned, for example, Snow White into a passive character singing, “Someday my Prince will Come.” Disney robbed the tales of what Yolen calls their “invigorating magic.” “The story has been falsified and the true meaning lost …”  (p. 39).

In this WOW Currents post continuing on the subject of fairy tales, I will explore the following questions regarding fairy tales:

  • Why are fairy tales valuable for today’s children?
  • How can we as classroom teachers justify sharing folktales when we are mandated with scripted or time-based curriculum and have the pressures of testing?
  • How can we answer objections to reading fairy tales in the classroom?

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Exploring Fairy Tales Part I

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA

SlipperFairy tales fueled my imaginary life as a child. In my play I became Snow White, Cinderella, and sometimes even the Prince when my friends insisted they must have a turn at the “main parts.” The romance of the tales captured my interest. Waiting for sleep at night, I would create new versions of the stories, always starring myself as the heroine.

My elementary students also enjoyed fairy tales. One sixth grade class, all new immigrants from Viet Nam, became absorbed in The Brocaded Slipper and Other Vietnamese Tales by Lynetter Vuong and Vo-Dinh Mai. After hearing the Vietnamese Cinderella, the title story in the collection, they started an inquiry about other Cinderella stories. That investigation led to a discovery of more than forty other Cinderella stories from all over the world.
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