Fairies, dragons, princesses, giants and other enchanted creatures in far, far away lands have captured the imaginations of children, teens and adults alike.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fairy tales can provide insights into ideal behaviour, help shape our thinking and way of life, increase our cultural understandings, and stimulate our imagination.
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.
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)
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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)
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!
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.
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.
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)