Exploring fairy tales

A DigitalNZ Story by Zokoroa

Exploring the wonders of fairy tales of old and contemporary reworkings as fractured and politically correct tales

Fairy tales, Fairytales, Folk tales, Folktales, Tales, Reading, Stories, Māori tales

Once upon a time – enchantment of fairy tales

Fairies, dragons, princesses, giants and other enchanted creatures in far, far away lands have captured the imaginations of children, teens and adults alike. 


Auckland Libraries

Think back to when your family and teachers read fairy tales to you - what are the stories you remember and still treasure!? My teacher read Chicken Licken to our class of five year olds and we were asked to draw a picture about the story. I still remember the colour of the crayon I used and the picture of Chicken Licken scuttling to hide in a cave that I had drawn for her safety (using a bit of creative license!) as the sky was falling.  


Visualise what is happening around the world when it is fairy tale storytime. An interesting article by Kate Lyons (2019) mentions that in India, Tamil fairy tales often begin with “In that only place…”, whereas in Nigeria the Yoruba people begin stories with: “Here is a story! Story it is.”  German fairy tales typically end with: “And if they didn’t die, they’re still alive today”, whereas the closing words in Iceland are, “The cat in the vale, lost its tail, end of fairytale”. In this way, fairy tales provide a shared narrative vocabulary between the storyteller and listener, as their thinking is synchronised.  

Teacher reading with children

NZEI Te Riu Roa (New Zealand Educational Institute)

Fairy tales of the World website where stories can be read online

Fairy Tales of the world

Services to Schools

ICDL website includes fairy tales, myths and legends written in English and other languages. Also has Māori tales.

The International children's digital library

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Which fairy tales to read?

What are your favourites!? Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault and other authors have inspired imaginations the world over. You can explore online versions of fairy tales at Stories to grow by.

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) - Danish author of "Thumbelina" and other tales

Boxed set of books

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Brothers Grimm: Jacob (1785-1863 & Wilhelm (1786-1859) - German authors (see gallery of images)

Brothers Grimm

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Charles Perrault (1628-1703) - French author of "Cinderella" and other tales

Jigsaw puzzle - Cinderella image

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

However, a 2012 UK survey of 2000 parents found that two-thirds were selective about what they read to their children - avoiding scary, awkward and gender stereotypical tales. See list of the top ten fairy tales that were avoided and why in UK Telegraph’s article.

2012 UK survey of 2000 parents: two-thirds avoided scary stories at bedtime

Avoided stories like the tale of two kids - Hansel & Gretel - abandoned in the forest

Hansel and Gretel

Radio New Zealand

Parents also avoided tales with awkward questions

For example: explaining a young girl's grandmother had been eaten by a wolf in Little Red Riding Hood

Costume, child's (Little Red Riding Hood Cape)

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Half of parents said Cinderella didn't send a good message

Reason being that Cinderella showed a young woman doing housework all day


Radio New Zealand

But, in a Radio New Zealand interview (2016), Dr Ellen Handler Spitz explained the psychology of fairy tales - why they're necessary, irresistable, and why being frightened by them is  important.   

Dr Ellen Handler Spitz (2016) explains why fairy tales, even scary ones, are important

Why scary fairy tales are good for kids

Radio New Zealand


Fairy tales can provide insights into ideal behaviour, help shape our thinking and way of life, increase our cultural understandings, and stimulate our imagination.  

Learning life's lessons:

Fairy tales can provide insights into ideal behaviour and help shape our thinking and way of life.  According to Bettelheim, fairy tales give the opportunity to understand one’s inner conflicts experienced during the phases of our spiritual and intellectual development, and to act these out and resolve them in our imagination.     

Life's lesson: The three little pigs

Illustrates importance of planning ahead & doing a job the right way (choosing house building materials)

Educational display (dental health) - three pigs

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Life's lesson: Chicken Licken

Teaches importance of thinking critically, & separating fact from fiction about the falling sky


Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Life's lesson: Rapunzel

Demonstrates the importance of problem-solving in letting down her long hair for her rescuer to climb

Peg Doll, 'Rapunzel'

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Stimulating imagination & shaping thinking:

Albert Einstein reportedly said to a mother who had enquired as to what type of reading would best prepare her young son to become a scientist, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He added that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality. (Source: Brainpickings)     

Sense of wonder:

Fairy tales help create a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world

Jigsaw puzzle - Puss in Boots image

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Window or door:

Provide a window or door into different cultures & ways of doing things



Learn critical thinking

Learn critical thinking skills by seeing the consequences of characters’ decisions

Jigsaw puzzle - Seven Little Kids image

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa


Provide a mirror that connects to their lives, dreams, anxieties and possible courses of action to solve problems

The Matsuyama Mirror.

University of Otago

Emotional resilience:

Build emotional resilience by showing real-life challenges in a fantastical setting with happy and sad endings

Jigsaw puzzle - Snow White image

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Portray values:

Portray values, good and evil, right and wrong, heroes and villains

Jigsaw puzzle - Sleeping Beauty image

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Increasing cultural understandings, E.G. Māori storytelling: 

In her article about how different culture tell their stories, Kate Lyons (2019) includes the example of  Māori storytelling. She cites Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal who explains, “What’s important in Māori storytelling is the constant reconnecting of people with the natural world."  Certain formal conventions are followed:, “… you start off with a genealogy from earth and sky, and as you come down the genealogy you get to a certain ancestor and when you get to that ancestor you begin the story about that person.” 

NZETC: digitised copy of "Fairy folk tales of the Maori" by James Cowan (1925)

Front Cover - Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori

Victoria University of Wellington

Royal gives the following example: “Earth and sky came together and had a child called Tāne, the forest, Tāne then had another child called Mumuwhango and Mumuwhango had another child and that child was said to have been raised upon the ocean … one day the child was on the ocean and met a group of dolphins.” As explained by Royal, the storytelling is as much about those genealogies as it is about the adventures of those individual characters.

Tāne Mahuta

Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Politically correct fairy tales

Have you seen the book Politically Correct Bedtime Stories: Modern Tales for Our Life and Times written by James Finn Garner in 1994 and revised with additional tales in 2011? Tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs and Snow White, were rewritten to provide a moral tale for children. Here’s an extract from Little Red Riding Hood: The wolf said, “You know, my dear, it isn’t safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone.” Red Riding Hood said, “ I find your sexist remark offensive in the extreme but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop your own, entirely valid, worldview. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.”  

Tales like Little Red Riding Hood have been rewritten by James Garner in "Politically correct bedtime stories" (1994)

Jigsaw puzzle - Box lid

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

You'll also find out that Rapunzel’s father is not poor but “economically disadvantaged”, Snow White is not beautiful but “not at all unpleasant to look at”, and the wicked witch isn’t actually wicked at all, but “kindness impaired”.  Intrigued? - Schools and home educators can borrow a copy from National Library of New Zealand Services to Schools Auckland and Christchurch centres. Or check your local public library.

Fractured fairy tales

Some fairy tales have been restructured and reimagined to include twists in the telling of the traditional plot - extra characters, new settings, contrary points of view and a different ending.  Some examples include:

Stories like Wiesner's "The three pigs" have non-linear plots where story parts can jumble up and multiple stories coexist.  Scieska's "The stinky cheese man and other fairly stupid tales" uses intertextual references to and parodying of characters and themes in traditional tales. These types of tales can be used to introduce concepts such as stream of consciousness, intertextuality, and symbolism. The graphics are also a great way to teach visual literacy and how to use context clues to determine the meaning of words. Such retellings of tales can also be used to inspire students to choose a fairy tale and write their fractured version. Tips are given on the ReadWriteThink website.

Pinterest web page with images of fractured fairy tales

Fractured fairy tales

Services to Schools

Animated fairy tales with a twist to the story

Little Red Riding Hood - fixed fairy tales

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NZ author Tanya Batt has retold fairytales from cultures, e.g. Armenian, Swahili, Chinese, Swedish & Jewish

Batt, Tanya

New Zealand Book Council

Benefits of reading fairy tales aloud


Think of your own reaction when someone reads aloud to you, “Once upon a time . . ."  - a feeling of calmness overcomes you as you are carried away into the world of that story’s fantasy!   As identified by Bruno Bettelheim (1989) in “The uses of enchantment”, fairy tales have an emotional, symbolic and therapeutic importance. (See article Children need fairy tales (PDF), by Heike vom Orde, 2013)  

Fairytales have an emotional, symbolic and therapeutic importance (Bettelheim, 1989)

Children need fairy tales

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Research has shown that not only the language parts of our brain are activated but also other areas such as our sensory and motor cortex as we picture words and their meaning – the story comes alive!  

As we picture words and their meaning, the story comes alive!

Dame Flora McLeod telling scottish fairy stories - Photograph taken by Lloyd Cornish

Alexander Turnbull Library

Listening comprehension:

The fantastical world of fairy tales helps children and teens to develop their listening comprehension as they think abstractly and decode the meaning of words. This, in turn, helps them to listen with understanding – predicting, monitoring, connecting to background knowledge and summarising. Listening comprehension is critical to reading comprehension as both require the same strategies to make sense of oral and written language.    

Fantastical world of fairy tales helps develop listening comprehension which is critical to reading comprehension


Auckland Libraries

Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of the fairy tale "Golden Goose"

Golden Goose

Radio New Zealand

Instilling a love of reading:

In addition to providing a mirror and window or door, fairy tales can help children instil a love of reading. Reading stories together helps to build children’s reading skills, which prepares them for academic achievement. As the story unfolds, students can make inferences and predict what will happen next, keeping them engaged.  The development of their imagination helps to foster their reading comprehension as they transform words into meaning. 

Fairy tales can help instil a love of reading


Auckland Libraries

WAYS to Unpack fairy tales:

You can use conversation-starters with children and teens to unpack the message in each tale.  As discussed on TKI’s Literacy Online, “Helping students to make connections between what they know and what they are reading improves their comprehension.”  There are four kinds of oral language usage and development required by students – independent listening, independent speaking, using social language and applying discussion skills. (See: TKI: Oral language)   

Conversation starter:

What did the main character of the story do right? What did s/he do wrong?

Adult reading with children

NZEI Te Riu Roa (New Zealand Educational Institute)

Conversation starter:

Were there better ways to solve the problem?

Boys reading

NZEI Te Riu Roa (New Zealand Educational Institute)

Conversation starter:

Can you think of similar problems in real life?

Fairy tale endings can still happen

Alexander Turnbull Library


There are a range of activities where fairy tales can be explored.  For starters, see the lesson plan on TKI: English online - Fairy tales and the various activities on ReadWriteThink, as well as the following ideas accessible on DigitalNZ:

ReadWriteThink web page on choosing and rewriting a fairy tale

Fractured fairy tales

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Make a fairy tale book

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Fairy tales and characters reinterpreted by illustrators

50 Digital fairy tale characters

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Other Resources

Services to Schools:

Topic explorer: Fairy tales set compiled from DigitalNZ by National Library of NZ Topics

Fairy Tales



World of Tales: a selection of online folktales and fairy tales

World of tales

Services to Schools

Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of "Rapunzel"


Radio New Zealand

Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of "Snow White"

Snow White

Radio New Zealand

Roger Wilson reading the Grimm version of "The moon"

The Moon

Radio New Zealand

Animated video of "Jack and the Beanstalk" on Youtube

Jack and the Beanstalk

Services to Schools

Animated video of "The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf"

The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.

Services to Schools

Animated video of "The Deamon, the Woman and the Bird" - African fairy tale from Senegal

The Deamon, the woman and the bird

Services to Schools

Excerpt from TV series Mataku where mysterious putapaiarehe (fairies) appear

Mataku - The Sisters (Ngā Tuāhine)

NZ On Screen

Interview with Illustrator Tokerau Wilson about the fairy tale comic "Cautionary Fables and Fairytales: Oceania Edition"

Cartoons and Folklore in Oceania

Radio New Zealand

Read more:

  •  The Guardian: Kate Lyon, “Here is a story! Story it is': how fairytales are told in other tongues: (19 April 2019) 
  •  Children need fairy tales (PDF), article by by Heike vom Orde (2013) which summarises key findings in Bruno Bettelheim’s book (1989), ”The uses of enchantment:  the meaning and importance of fairy tales”.  
  •  Imagination Soup: Melissa Taylor, “8 reasons why fairy tales are essential to childhood”
  •  ReadWriteThink: Fractured fairy tales 

Anthropologist Dr. Jaime Tehrani of Durham University discusses origin of fairy tales (2016)

The Age of Fairytales

Radio New Zealand

BBC article about the origin of fairy tales (2016)

Fairy tale origins thousands of years old, researchers say

Services to Schools

Interview with Prof Maria Tatar on "Fairy Tales in an Age of Electronic Entertainment" (2011)

Maria Tatar: fairytales

Radio New Zealand

Research on how fairy tales play a substantial role in the shaping of childhoods (2016)

Forever young: Childhoods, fairy tales and philosophy

University of Waikato

Research on fairy tales and gender in Snow White films (2014)

Fairy Tale Femininities: A Discourse Analysis of Snow White Films 1916-2012

Victoria University of Wellington

Kate Camp discusses tales by Hans Christian Andersen, 2008

Kate's Klassic: Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales

Radio New Zealand