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?

First, fairy tales are good stories that involve the listener or reader in active plots that grab the attention and quickly unfold with dramatic situations. The stories are short on description, focusing instead on basic human emotions by employing universal themes. Since the tales stem from the oral tradition, they have been polished through years of story telling until they are flawless. We want to return to them again and again since they provide truths that undergird our lives. These stories capture our imaginations, and keep us, especially children wanting more. When we read aloud fairy tales to our students we offer a “carrot” for young readers to work towards so they can read them for themselves.

Second, the stories provide a guide for living and do so without being didactic. The famous child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim writes in his groundbreaking book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, that fairy tales show children “the advantages of moral behavior, not through abstract ethical concepts but through that which seems tangibly right and therefore meaningful…” (p. 5). He continues that fairy tales “offer examples of both temporary and permanent solutions to pressing difficulties” (p. 6). The best of the tales provide metaphors that can guide our lives. Bettelheim believes that the message of fairy tales is that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence –- but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one  masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious” (p. 8).

Even so he states, “ the fairy tale could not have its psychological impact on the child if it were not first and foremost a work of art” (p. 12). So the strength of these stories is that they are essentially well told stories that speak to our hearts. For a fascinating round table discussion of the value of fairy tales see “Transformations: How Fairy Tales Cast their Spell.”

Third, as teachers read aloud fairy tales to their classes they are providing excellent models of literary stories, works of art that provide children with a sense of story and much more. There are a variety of ways to share the tales in the classroom while fulfilling the demands of the curriculum. The following describes just a few.

1) The stories can be shared to demonstrate literary elements such as setting, character and plot. I used to provide the following model to students to illustrate story structure:

Somebody (Character(s))
Wanted (Character’s Goal)
But (the problem encountered by the characters)
So (the resolution of the problem)

If we were reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff I demonstrated the model like this:

Somebody — the three goats
Wanted — to eat grass on the other side of the bridge
But –- the troll stopped them from crossing the bridge
So –- they tricked the troll & went to the other side

2) It was also useful to show the children how perspective was altered by changing the “somebody” to the troll instead of the goats. Then they could see another character’s perception or point of view.

3) Teachers can also fulfill the requirements of the curriculum by showing how setting can influence decisions about characters by sharing different versions of the same tale from other cultures. For example, the wolf in the European version of Little Red Riding Hood becomes a dog in the African version, Pretty Salma: A Little Red Riding Hood Story from Africa by Niki Daly. These and other strategies can be shared with children in fulfilling the requirements of the curriculum.

4) Many lessons on readwritethink.org focus on fairy tales with strong connections to the curriculum. I encourage you to explore all there literary engagements, though here are some of my favorites:

http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=874 – for Teaching about Story Structure Using Fairy Tales
http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=261 – for Behind the Scenes with Cinderella
http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=91 – for Exploring World Cultures Through Fairy Tales
http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=992 – for Enchanting Readers with Revisionist Fairy Tales

With these primary values why are there objections to fairy tales? Some objections are to the magical elements in the stories, other objections are to the violence in fairy tales, others object to characters in fairy tales like witches. Jane Yolen argues against such objections in her book Touch Magic Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, “It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough –- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to proffer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters — then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler’s evil deeds, will seem like so much slanted news, not to be believed” (p. 74).

I agree with Yolen, our children need strong stories. What do you think? Are fairy tales valuable for young readers? How do you share them in your classroom?

If you agree that fairy tales are valuable for youngsters how do you go about evaluating them? I will explore that question in the next blog.

Here are some tales that are “serious intruders into the heart.”

  • Beauty and the Beast by Marianna Mayer
  • The Girl Who Spun Gold by Virginia Hamilton
  • Rapunzel by Paul Zelinsky
  • Toads and Diamonds by Charlotte Huck
  • Vailissa the Beautiful by Elizabeth Winthrop

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. To view our complete offerings of WOW Currents, please visit archival stream.

array(9) {
  array(1) {
    string(14) "1580500300:264"
  array(1) {
    string(3) "264"
  array(1) {
    string(0) ""
  array(1) {
    string(17) "fairy tale values"
  array(1) {
    string(21) "exploring fairy tales"
  array(1) {
    string(271) "Fairy tales provide value to children as they can demonstrate what it's like to have a moral compass and know the difference between good and evil. They also provide lessons to the children by seeing characters make conscious decisions, which all children can learn from."
  array(1) {
    string(2) "75"
  array(1) {
    string(2) "30"
  array(1) {
    string(5) "37464"

2 thoughts on “Exploring Fairy Tales Part II

  1. Andrea Bailey says:

    When I read fairy tales to my kindergarten class, I usually include Paul Zelinsky’s version of Rumpelstiltskin. This version is also a “serious intruder into the heart.” This book is in a text set with many fairy tales my student’s already know, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears. My students love to hate Rumpelstiltskin. He is such a funny little character. He is a popular fairy tale villain in the play corner. I love to hear children using the language from the book as they retell a favorite story.

  2. Marilyn Carpenter says:

    I am so interested that your students responded so favorably to Rumpelstiltskin. My only experience with that version has been with 4th graders and up. Isn’t it great to see the children adopt the language of the tale. And, it is terrific to hear that you have a play corner. BRAVO!

Leave a Reply

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