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Friday, May 29, 2020

Fairy Tales Make Kids Smarter

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Fairy Tales Make Kids Smarter

I wanted to invite you to read my new retelling of two very old “fairy tales”, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Hansel and Gretel.   

Einstein reportedly recommended to parents that to produce  intelligent, scientifically inclined children, read them fairy tales; and then read more fairy tales!

I’m not sure I understand the link to science; it must be for fairy tales’ exercise of the imagination.

As a librarian I shied away from the dark fairy tales for story times, fearing the grim tales would sound much too dark uttered aloud in front of parents. I found few satisfying fairy tale substitutes.  Most of the new fairy tale retellings of traditional tales, for the younger set,  twist the characters and plots into gruelingly hilarious modern updates with feisty children. 

 The young adult retellings are very long and the heroines self absorbed and introspective, as designed for teens.

The parents who bring the children to the library for story time are so young!  and of a generation which seemed to miss out on the old fairy tales.  Many of these adults, those educated in American schools, seem not to intimately know the old tales, (avoided alike in their time,  by their parents and teachers, for their darkness).   The parents may be merely remotely acquainted with television horror franchises sourced from the tales, or the Disney versions which were advertised specifically during the years of their childhood or their children’s coming of Disney age.  There were no favorite written versions from the parents’ childhoods.

I discovered these tales are not so trite or too often repeated after all.  

The people hungry for educational advantage, many immigrant families, homeschoolers, and families preparing for the Ivies, did come to the library looking for the traditional fairy tales, and took them home by the armful.  Perhaps they were doing scholarly examination of the tales, essays considering the gender roles, the generational duties, the archetypes in common across cultures.  Perhaps they wanted their children to have a strong foundation in the  currency of the old tales’ idioms in English. ( I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal warning against killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.)

Darkness, Light and Health

And they are wonderful stories beloved by children!  

I wanted to retell Jack for my kindergarten nephew because he doesn't know it , but he picks up,  rephrases and plays with  idioms,  testing his understanding of  the meanings of our language.    I enjoyed imagining why Jack makes the decisions he does, and I found the story funny.   My Jack ended up a story largely about mothers of sons, so the giant has a mother rather than a wife, and is a great boy perhaps very like Jack.  

As a child, I was fascinated with the Gingerbread Castle in Hamburg, NJ and could return again and again, when I was really too old a child.   I loved climbing the stairs for the Hansel and Gretel story to the oven where, I think, the witch’s feet were sticking out?

The violence in both these stories was a challenge in remaking them. In the June Seas retelling, the dread of too-literal violence is skimmed over in both stories; a guiding adult can steer speculation regarding what end, exactly, is feared by the children, to some other end.  They are certainly both stories about many hungers with dire consequences.

The witch and the oven were a challenge.  Notwithstanding Gingerbread Castle, the witch and the oven was never the most interesting part of the story to me. (The thrill of the castle was the steps leading up to what you knew would be up there!  Just as the thrill of the tale is the leading-up-to the finale.)  I feared the story might have played a part in historic persecutions. But remember a line from Taika Waititi’s film JoJo Rabbit:  one of the children, near the end, notices that every side in the war similarly propagandizes that its enemy eats children.  As far as I have found the horror is a timeless and universal archetype, as is redemption by children.

The witch of this retelling is more of a magic creation, like her house, than a person.  
The best event in Hansel and Gretel, for children, must be the candy cottage.  The fearsome and fascinatingly dark part of Hansel and Gretel, for me, was always  the neglect and abandonment of the children by their parents, in the face of want and hunger.  I feel like this was always the thorn which made the story sticky.  Another facet making the story unpopular in a day of self-consciously broken and blended families (I say self-consciously because families were always broken and reformed, though perhaps by death rather than choice),  is the blame of the stepmother/mother.   The truth in this June Seas tale is the linking of the stepmother and the witch’s magic, the hunger of all parties, and the distraction of the father and the children by the tempting candy. 

(Spirited Away Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, makes me think of these stories, too. In Spirited Away, a child’s family  has to relocate for a parent’s career.   On the way they discover an abandoned amusement park, where  the little girl is separated from her parents who are lured to a food trough where they are turned into pigs.  Like Hansel and Gretel, the parents’ gluttony and greed negatively transform the child’s life.   The tale includes a witch who enslaves the girl as labor, and  a monster which tries to eat, engulf, all.   The film bears repeated viewings as a classic. ) 

G. K. Chesterton told us that fairy tales are true; that the tales do not produce fear in children because children already know about evil.  They know that dragons exist; fairy tales teach that dragons can be defeated.  

Neil Gaiman refers to G.K. Chesterton and explains his own predilection for fairy tales: “Even when all is darkest, you can think your way out of trouble. “

Joyce Carol Oates talks about the profound effect on her childhood of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  She notes that Alice faced some very unpleasant people and frightening situations, though Alice never behaved as a hysterical little girl but rather as a reasoning person.  

As in all the best childhood tales, Jack, Hansel and Gretel think and act independently, reasoning out their options.   Fairy tales affirm.  

Language and Chapter Reading

I  met many grandparents, parents and teachers searching for the right first chapter books to read aloud.  They wanted to introduce to their littlest children the joy of returning to a story developing night after night.  They wanted a tale they found sufficiently linguistically interesting to read themselves, with multiple levels of understanding for their multi-age families or classrooms.  The hunt for the right first chapter books often ended with the old books rather than any new ones.    

Some children were reading their first juvenile chapter books on their own but wanted a story they could ultimately complete in the check-out period, rather than having the thick book of too many chapters waiting for them, (I know, I have those on my bedside table for years, too).  

Hungry Kids’ chapters can be read aloud, with interruptions for discussion and pictures, in about 10 minutes each, and are limited to just several chapters in each tale.  We aim to please.

Once the children are middle grade readers, note their continuing fascination with the mythology stories, (Rick Riordan) and stories involving magic and good and evil (Harry Potter).  

When I was little, even after I was too old for picture books, I would check out some beautifully illustrated fairy tale ballet books, the same ones again and again, because they were so beautiful, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty.  I was reminded of this when a grandmother and teacher, selecting books for a granddaughter, strolled the aisles and told me, “well, she really likes beautiful things…” She explained that she meant, in language and subject, the elevated rather than the vulgar.  

The youngest children can learn vocabulary on a much higher level than is commonly assumed, so I refrain from talking down to children.  To preserve the feeling of a centuries old and told aloud tale, the language is both somewhat formal, to maintain the feeling of a gift from olden times, and intimate with the reader, in storyteller fashion.   I strive to elevate.  

June Seas has reimagined these classic fairy tales in time for the Collaborative Library Summer Program reading theme, “Imagine Your Story”. Many libraries remain closed, but you may still want to incorporate old and new fairy tales into your reading for pleasure and for learning. I hope you will find the language and stories a beautiful thing.   

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