Fairy tales: For kids or adults?
Rumpelstiltskin, Thumbelina … If Disney hasn’t taken a crack at a fairy tale, it’s off his radar. I’ll bet he’s never even heard of Hansel and Gretel.
And yet, our house is full of these stories.
The fairy tale remix is my favorite genre of anything. Books, comic books, movies, music, musicals. I’m counting the hours until I can see the new “Red Riding Hood” movie, and I’ll see “Beastly,” too, even if they’re both terrible. If this fairy tale trend never ends, I’ll live happily ever after.
But I’m not passing that love down to my kids. (Or I am, but in a very careful, limited way.) Fairy tales, in my mind, are for adults.
I didn’t start out feeling that way. When my first son was born, I went out of my way to buy books of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. I especially tried to avoid modern twists on these works.
The fairy tale remix trend applies to kids entertainment, too. Aside from Disney, it’s easier to find “Shrek”-like takes on fairy tales and nursery rhymes than it is pure stories. (Everything today is meta.)
I wanted my kids to hear the original stories first, not the stories that make fun of them. If you don’t know about the Gingerbread Boy, how can you appreciate the Stinky Cheese man?
An author I interviewed this week — Carolyn Turgeon, who’s written adult takes on “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid” — talks about fairy tales living “in our blood and our bones.”
That’s what I wanted for my kids, cultural literacy, a blood-and-bone appreciation of fundamental stories.
And then I started reading some of these stories out loud at bedtime…
I realized that, almost without exception, they’re completely messed up. They’re violent, they’re confusing. The characters are awful, even the heroes. A lot of times, they don’t make sense.
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water…
You know what happens next. My kids don’t. Because whenever I try to read them nursery rhymes (starter fairy tales) they look at me like I’m crazy. Like, “Is that it?”
Jack and Jill went up the hill … Why? To what end? Why did he fall? What’s a crown? Did Jack die? Why did Jill fall, too? Is she OK?
We read them a lot of fables and folk tales, and those can be problematic, too — but when we get to fairy tales, I find myself changing the plots as I’m reading them. I never get to the part in “Red Riding Hood” where the hunter hacks Red out of the wolf’s carcass, or the end of “The Three Little Pigs,” where the wolf falls into the pigs’ stew pot and is boiled to death.
I just can’t justify the violence. The stories don’t seem to have earned it, and I don’t feel like it’s worth going there with my full-of-questions kids. In my son’s eyes, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is a go-nowhere story where a thoughtless girl breaks things and then runs away. But at least the bears don’t die gruesome deaths.
I buy into the theory that fairy tales are basic, elemental stories with primal lessons. But when I’m reading them to my kids, I question the value of those lessons. These stories are in my blood and my bones, but are they doing me any good?
Turgeon wrote her books “Godmother” and “Mermaid” from the perspective of minor characters in “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid,” stories that she fell in love with as a little girl watching Disney movies.
In a way, she says, rewriting those stories was a way to reconcile them for herself.
“They’ve fed you certain fantasies,” about love, men, womanhood, “that maybe you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself as an adult.”
In Disney’s “Cinderella,” the heroine is abandoned by her parents and enslaved by her stepmother, but finding a prince makes everything OK. In Turgeon’s book, “Cinderella is pretty damaged.”
Another author who’s taken on “The Little Mermaid” is Omaha author Timothy Schaffert. His short story “The Mermaid in the Tree” appears in the anthology “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales” alongside authors such as Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates.
Schaffert thinks we have a “perverse” need to revisit fairy tales. “Didn’t you used to wonder about the aspects of these characters’ lives that we weren’t hearing about?” he asked. “As adults, we’re allowed to articulate these childhood curiosities.”
Maybe that’s why I can’t get enough of fairy tales — because more than anything, these stories feel unfinished to me. They got under my skin when I was a kid, and the colors and emotions are indelible. (Red apples, dark woods, run from the beast.) But my adult brain wants more from the stories.
There once was a girl called Red Riding Hood, I’ll tell my sons, and it doesn’t matter that nobody would ever mistake a wolf for a grandmother.
You’ve got to let these stories in now if you want to enjoy taking them apart later.
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