Prolific writer Jane Yolen is a passionate proponent of the role of traditional folk and fairy tales in the lives of children. In Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, she warned, “Our children are growing up without their birthright: the myths, fairy tales, fantasies and folklore that are their proper legacy. It is a serious loss.”
In the process of entertaining us, myths and folk literature perform four crucial functions, Yolen argues. They provide …
- a landscape of allusion
- insight into ancestral cultures
- a safe path for processing experience
- a framework for an individual’s beliefs and values
“When we … deprive [children] of the insights and poetic visions expressed in words that humans have produced throughout human history, we deny them – in the end – their own humanity.” We bequeath to them a dry and shallow culture.
While I agree all four functions are vital, I’d like to focus on the third and fourth roles, as they pertain to the education of the heart, which is so often neglected in our schools. As Yolen pointed out, “The best of the old stories spoke not just to the ears but to the heart as well.”
How do these old tales speak to the heart? They echo our fears, hopes, and losses. Most children aren’t conscious of their fear of abandonment, but they recognize it when they hear a story such as “Hansel and Gretel.” Folk literature explores and examines forces so fearsome as to seem almost insurmountable. Like Jack, children live in a world with giants. The tales give them tools to interpret their confusing lives. They invite young ones to envision a way to triumph over adversity, to succeed despite all obstacles. Dare to hope, the stories tell us.
There’s more. Children respond to the stark morality, the chiaroscuro of fairy tales. They understand it. They crave it. That’s why the sugary, Disney versions don’t have the same impact. G.K. Chesteron said, “If you really read the fairy tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other – the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery tale.” In other words, you cannot get unless you give.
These stories reflect the human condition, in that they so often depict a condition of choice. The heroine chooses to venture “east o’ the sun and west o’ the moon” – and rescues her husband. Every choice has consequences. The wolf’s choice to climb down the chimney lands him in the pot of boiling water. Justice is served. Every memorable story, Yolen wrote, “is about the working through evil in order to come at last to the light.”
Choose to lead young ones to these powerful old tales. They deserve no less.
A Few Recommended Folk and Fairy Tales … (Look for more in future posts.)
For Ages 4-6
Cousins, Lucy. Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales. Candlewick, 2009. Cousins retells beloved classic fairy tales with simple, direct language, complemented by her large, expressive, bright gouache spreads. As in the traditional versions, poetic justice rings out loud and clear in this collection, which includes “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Musicians of Bremen,” “Henny Penny,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and “The Enormous Turnip.”
Aylesworth, Jim. The Gingerbread Man.
———————Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
———————Tale of Tricky Fox.
———————Aunt Pitty Patty’s Piggies.
For Ages 6-8
Andersen, Hans Christian; Alderson, Brian, retel. Thumbelina. Candlewick, 2009.
Bruchac, Joseph. The First Strawberries.
——————— The Story of the Milky Way.
Bryan, Ashley. Ashley Bryan’s African Tales, Uh-Huh and The Lion, the Ostrich Chicks, and Other African Tales.
Lunge-Larsen, Lise. The Troll With no Heart in his Body. Houghton, 2003.
For Ages 8 and up
Andersen, Hans Christian. The Snow Queen. Retold by Naomi Lewis. Candlewick, 2009. Beautifully retold and illustrated version of Andersen’s lengthy, memorable tale of a boy whose heart is stolen by the evil Snow Queen and the brave girl who rescues him with the warmth of her love.
Grimm, Brothers. The Juniper Tree: and other Tales from Grimm. Jarrell, Randall and Lore Segal, ed. Il. by Maurice Sendak. Farrar, 2003. Now classic collection includes 27 fairy tales, many of which are lesser-known tales, such as the striking title story. (Reissued)
Lewis, Naomi. Stories From the Arabian Nights. Random, 1990. While there are many versions of these stories, most don’t come near the beauty of these masterful retellings by Lewis.
Yolen, Jane. Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys. Yolen has retold folktales in which the hero uses his imagination or cleverness to resolve conflicts.
Yolen, Jane. Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls. Houghton, 2000. Yolen deftly retells fairy and folktales featuring heroines who solve problems by being brave, clever, or industrious.