Tag Archives: Fairy Tales

Happily Ever After – The Role of Fairy Tales in the Young Child’s Life



Unicorns do not exist

They only think they do

Unicorns do not exist

They’ve better things to do


Watching the intensity with which children pretend to be Belle, Ariel, Elsa, Batman, or a Jedi Knight, I am struck by the vital importance of this kind of play in the child’s understanding of who he is and who he aspires to be.

When a child creates scenarios based on her belief of how a heroic character would act under certain circumstances, she engages in fundamental questions about the meaning of life. What looks like the simple wearing of a blue sparkling dress is really a ceremonial act with roots in ancient rites of storytelling and mythology.

Because a child’s thinking is animistic, he readily believes that a beast can turn into a prince, that wind can speak, or that creatures such as mermaids exist. Children see the world subjectively. Until they are able to understand the complexities of life in a more objective manner it is not only counter productive, but harmful to the psyche to point out that such things as dragons, unicorns, or fairies are not real. Fairy tales speak directly to the child’s subconscious which intuits the hidden truths inherent in the stories. Explaining that these tales are imaginary, as some well meaning adults are wont to do, only makes the child distrustful of his own inner voice that so vibrantly tells him that these lovely creatures are real. It robs the child of the solace of believing that with a valiant heart, even the very small and weak can overcome the big and powerful. Fairy tales provide a secure foundation that will only later be understood as metaphor. Dorothy melting the Witch, and Jack outwitting the Giant become over time solid beliefs that evil can be vanquished by good.

The hero in any fairy tale begins as an innocent, thrust into a position in which she must face grave dangers. With courage and honorable deeds, she wins out over all obstacles and lives happily ever after.

Fairy tales acknowledge what the child instinctively knows to be true. Bad thing exist, and sometimes he will make bad choices himself, be unkind, greedy, jealous, lazy, or go down the wrong path – the dark one, full of monsters. Fairy tales are profoundly moral stories that emphasize the power of honor, courage, humility, generosity and love. That reassure the child that mistakes and missteps will ultimately be of no consequence and happiness will prevail if the heart is pure.

A child feels empathy for the archetypal character who is at the mercy of unkind fortune, who is the youngest, the one often thought of as a simpleton, or with the least strength, because this is often how he perceives himself. The magic of the fairy tale is not in the dragons and castles, but in the idea that an ordinary boy or girl can be transformed into a hero.

In the classic fairytale being abandoned, lost, orphaned, or forced by fate to leave one’s home represent the inevitability of having to grow up. The symbolism of life’s journey resonates with the child’s realization of what her future will contain. The hero must preform a series of tasks or tests to prove herself – often with the help of seemingly ordinary creatures who bestow invincible totems as rewards for such simple gestures as kindness or politeness. The boy or girl acts solely out of sympathy and in turn is given an item that is invaluable in performing an otherwise impossible mission. This motif tells the child what she already perceives to be true – that growing up will not be easy, will not happen all at once, is full of wonder and mystery, and requires great fortitude.

Fairytales may seem outdated, irrelevant, or even too scary to a modern day parent. But it is important not to apply adult sensitivities to these stories which acknowledge, and pacify natural fears that the young child grapples with daily. If a fairytale truly alarms you, then choose another, there are hundreds of them from all over the world. But trust that these classic plots, which are repeated throughout all cultures, have very good reasons to have lasted for thousands of years.

Fairytales can be disturbing, but never in any one of them have I been so horrified as I was at this recent attempt of the NRA to use these stories to indoctrinate our youngest…


Fairytales celebrate the true, the honest, the kind, the trustworthy, and the virtuous . They offer hope and redemption. This twisted idea from the NRA of what strength and courage is corrupts the very meaning and purpose of the fairytale.

Although Disney has become the modern cantadora of fairytales, don’t leave this rite of passage entirely to a giant corporation whose singular interpretation is marketed and templated. Read to your children, let their imaginations soar, and you will be holding hands across generation after generation of parents and grandparents who have participated together in this mystically beautiful and ancient tradition.

Believing in the possibility of happy ever after achieved by goodness of heart and nobility of spirit at once brings a sense of order, power over wickedness and inspiration on how to live to the child.


I wanted Yoda to be the traditional kind of character you find in fairy tales and mythology. One of the basic motifs in fairy tales is that you find the poor and unfortunate along the side of the road, and when they beg for help, if you give it to them, you end up succeeding. If you don’t give it to them, you end up being turned into a frog or something. It’s something that’s been around for thousands of years, a concept that’s been around for thousands of years. -George Lucas






When is “Dark” Young Adult Fiction Too Dark?


copyright ©donnaesgro


Imagine a few well known stories with different plots: The witch in the gingerbread house is a sweet old lady who loves children…Oliver Twist is a well fed happy school boy…and Romeo and Juliet marry with their parent’s blessings…What would these stories be missing? Would they be as potent and still be read as avidly centuries after having been written?

“Fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

 Good stories, whether fairy tales, Shakespearean plays, or Young Adult novels, are more than entertainment; they are conduits to understanding ourselves and others, connecting us intimately and immediately to our innate nature. Evil exists, but with strength and fortitude it can be overcome. We all, especially adolescents, get lost and need guidance. Reading a variety of authors who again and again confirm that strength comes from within and that triumph is possible whether it be over the evil witch, the classroom bully, or, as in some YA novels, rape, incest, and drug abuse, can be a solace in an often confusing world in which tragic events seem to have no beginning, no end, and no easy answers.

We all want our children to be protected from the ugliness of the world, but how realistic is this desire, and what harm could it potentially do? When sensitive authors, such as E.B. White, can create sympathy for a big grey hairy spider, or when Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (Beauty and The Beast-Eighteenth Century) can have us fall helplessly in love with a hideous beast, they are on to something big. They teach us in a simple, visceral, timeless way, that even very young children can understand, that we need to look deeper; that patience, kindness, truth, and honor are powerful defenses that lie within us all.

When I was a young I read Black Beauty, Of Mice and Men, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, over and over again, crying every time at their messages of fierce sorrow. I remember sitting cross legged on my rumpled bed, the sounds of the household dim in the background, feeling the rise of emotion, knowing it would lead to tears. Why did I pick these books, knowing that each held such grief? What was it about the stories that compelled me to read and re-read?

Great books, the ones that pass down through the generations, have many qualities in common. One is that they tell the truth. Good literature unites us in our humanity. Feelings of isolation, apartness and disconnection fall away. We are transported into the very souls of the characters.

Letting tears fall while reading profound and universal truths in fiction is something I have always accepted as an important part of an empathetic immersion experience with the characters in a story. Being emotionally wrenched was a testament to the art of the writer. So a recent experience that I had while conducting a fifth grade book club surprised and unnerved me. We were reading Lois Lowry’s riveting classic The Giver. The members had excellent questions as we read carefully through each chapter. One scientifically minded child asked “How did they make everything seem black and white even though it actually had color? Wouldn’t that be impossible unless they did some kind of operation on people’s eyes?” I posed questions such as, “Would you like to live in a world like this one, everything in order, no crime, no poverty, with everyone the same?” I wanted them to think and I wanted them to feel. I thought that all was going well…until Chapter Nineteen.

The point of view in The Giver is through the eyes of the protagonist, a twelve year old boy named Jonas. The skilled author unfolds the story page by page, so that the reader sees and feels everything simultaneously with the main character.

(Spoiler Alert)

Jonas watched as his father bent over the squirming newchild on the bed. “And you, little guy, you’re only five pounds ten ounces. A shrimp!” His father turned and opened the cupboard. He took out a syringe and a small bottle. Very carefully he inserted the needle into the bottle and began to fill the syringe with a clear liquid…his father began very carefully to direct the needle into the top of the newchild’s forehead, puncturing the place where the fragile skin pulsed…he pushed the plunger very slowly, injecting the liquid into the scalp vein until the syringe was empty…”He killed it! My father killed it!” Jonas said to himself, stunned at what he was realizing.

 At this climactic moment one of the book club members threw the book from the table. “I hate Lois Lowry! She wrote this book for children! FOR CHILDREN!! I’m not reading it.” He jumped up, outraged, got some tape and began taping up the book so that no unsuspecting reader would ever open it. He grabbed a pen and furiously wrote, “Worst Book EVER! NEVER READ, EVER!” and taped it to the cover. He walked away from the rest of the members and sat on the couch staring straight ahead.

I was shocked, perplexed, and guilty. What had I done? This was a 12 year old who had sat through movies with aplomb that were way to scary for me. Who had told me that the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s was “not so bad”.  I had never expected this. I went to him and encouraged him to keep reading with us. That Lois Lowry was trying to warn us against this kind of world, that she wasn’t being ‘mean’ as he called her. He refused. When I told him that I thought it would help if he kept reading to the end, that things were going to work out, he was unable to be comforted. We broke for the day.

Later I discovered that he wouldn’t discuss his feelings with his mother, telling her that, “it was too terrible for her to know”. After much urging he did finish The Giver with the rest of the group and felt proud that he had shown the courage to see this difficult book through to its cathartic ending. We discussed how brave Jonas had been to escape the monstrous society he lived in and postulated on why the author might have written such a book. Reading the novel had been a powerful and meaningful experience for all the members of the book club, including me, who had read it many times before.

Where do we draw the line between well intentioned guiding and banning?

How do we determine good and bad taste? And who decides?

Although I abhor the idea that some authors who write for the YA market may use horrendous images, sexuality, and abundant profanity simply to spice up an otherwise poorly written novel, I believe that it still comes down to the fact that it is better for some badly written books to be out there than for such authors as J.D. Salinger, D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsberg, and even Walt Whitman, who write of ideas that do not appeal to everyone, be censored.


When authors as acclaimed as Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, or George Orwell confront the reader with harrowing views of spiritual dystopia, what are they attempting to communicate? If I had held a book back from these 12 year olds, not wanting to hurt them, wouldn’t I be guilty of perpetrating the exact “sameness” that Lois Lowry is so desperately warning us against in The Giver?

Books allow us to experience the unimaginable, to peer safely into the abyss. Without despair the word hope is meaningless. That books, in this age of emotionally distancing communication patterns, still have such power to touch us is truly wonderful.

However, I did decide to give my book club members a breather and picked Chris Grabenstein’s delightful Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library for our next book. They are going to need a break before I introduce Fahrenheit 451 next year.

Imagine a Road Trip Without Electronic Devices


“I wouldn’t have gone without you, and then I might never have seen that – that swan, that sunbeam, that thunderbolt! I might never have heard that entrancing sound, or smelt that bewitching smell! I owe it all to you my best of friends!”

The Wind in the Willows


From Fairy Tales to Star Wars many of the greatest of stories are about journeys. Despite the fact that the world has gotten smaller via our ability to travel faster and communicate instantly, our daily lives, in many ways, have become more insular with much of our information filtered through the same media, rather than through personal experience. Imagine a family trip without electronic devices. Imagine non-virtual adventure and exploration, tide pools alive with spiny life, and hills of fragile wildflowers. Imagine watching the clouds change from white to rose to silver-gold, or traversing an ancient lakebed where once dinosaurs left giant footprints in the mud.

Video games, with their pretend mastery of pretend enemies that rack pretend points redeemable for pretend awards, distract from all the real wonders that surround us. What do we teach our children metaphorically when we teach them to enjoy the journey? That life is to be experienced now, with all of our senses acute. That life is joyful, sad, anxious, hilarious, soft, hard, sharp, and shiny…that the funny looking mountain just ahead used to be an active volcano, and that the stars above are far, far away and to innumerable to count. When we pick up a book instead of an electronic device we lead our children to a place of respect for literature, enlarge their base of learning, reinforce their comprehension, increase their vocabulary, and introduce a certain knowledge that books are valuable keys to both information and magic.

So, whether your journey is 300 or 3,000 miles, whether you are traveling by car, ship, or airplane, bring books, maps, and guides, instead of electronics. Let your child be involved in the planning process by picking out both fiction and nonfiction reading material pertinent to your trip. Even the very young enjoy creating their own trip journal. Let her draw or paste souvenirs in a blank book while you write down what she has to say. Children are fascinated by seeing their spoken words in print. This technique is often used by teachers in early childhood education as a tool in the attainment of early writing skills. Older children will be proud of being able to draw a picture and write a few sentences by themselves.

Teach your child to navigate, how to use a map scale, and what a compass rose depicts. Math and geography become relevant when one is calculating how far the fragile Monarch Butterfly migrates each year. Imagine your child unfolding a map and tracing the butterfly’s vulnerable 2,000 mile odyssey from Canada and northeastern United States to the high mountains of Mexico. The calm ocean stretching to the horizon becomes alive when you open a book about Pacific Shore Life and learn that bright orange Garibaldi, harmless leopard sharks, and bat rays are just a few of the creatures who play in underwater grottos just off shore, and that deep below, below even where whales swim, there are fish that glow in the impenetrable dark. Children are eager to hear new words: Paleozoic, migrate, metamorphoses, bioluminescent, and will absorb even scientific terms readily when there is a direct connection to the real world. Neurobiologists agree that the mind is wired to learn in a sensory, interdisciplinary, and interactive manner, and that hands on learning has a definitive impact on neuronal connections in the developing brain.

“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

John Holt/educator and author

Synthesized media is, inevitably, a part of a modern child’s daily life. Vacations are designed to free one’s self of daily routine, to see the world, or to simply see the world in new ways. A trip without devices allows time to think, time to imagine, even time to be bored…and to figure out creative solutions to fight boredom. When you get home from your trip, go to the library and pick out more books about the places you have visited. Reflection deepens and broadens first hand experience. There is no telling what will excite your child, perhaps he will want to learn more about fossils, or asteroids, or entomology. Books will open door after door into these new worlds, for it is only when we approach a subject with passionate interest that we truly learn.

So, this summer, build sandcastles instead of Minecraft, take detours, find adventure in unlikely places, and enjoy the journey.

Unknown copy 2


Man misses breaching Humpback while texting

Why Should You Read the Book Before You See the Movie?




Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid quests for an Immortal Soul

Disney’s mermaid, Ariel, quests for a Prince Charming.

My fourth grade Book Club recently finished reading James and the Giant Peach. Each meeting was spent reading a chapter or two out loud, taking turns being different characters, and talking about what the words made us think or feel. Raoul Dahl’s descriptive language made is easy to imagine both the scenes and the characters: “For suddenly, just behind him, James heard a rustling of leaves, and he turned around and saw an old man in a crazy dark-green suit emerging from the bushes. He was a very small old man, but he had a huge bald head and a face that was covered all over with bristly black whiskers.”

I was reading from an edition with the original illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, while the children’s books were more recent editions, illustrated by Quentin Blake. We used this difference to contrast and compare the illustrator’s interpretation of the story. Everyone noticed that my book’s drawings were eerie and mysterious, while theirs were humorous. This led to a discussion about Dahl’s style, how, indeed, his stories were both strangely frightening and oddly funny.

Each one of us imagines a different world when reading James and the Giant Peach, each envisions a different old man. But what if one sees the movie before reading the book? Whose vision would he see? Viewing a movie first limits the ability to imagine own’s one scenes and characters. It stifles the individual’s ability to conjure an alternate reality-one of the truly enchanting aspects of reading. “As with all great art, the fairy tale’s deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life. The child will extract different meaning from the same fairy tale, depending on his interests and needs of the moment.” Bruno Bettelheim – The Uses of Enchantment

In the 1996 film adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, Aunt Spiker looks like Joanna Lumley, and Miss Spider is a heavily made up French vamp in a beret and high black leather boots. Not that these portrayals aren’t brilliant, but they are not one’s own. Our imaginations are limitless. Imagination, like dreaming, is a uniquely personal experience; movies, a group one. There is also a very good chance that once a child (or an adult) sees the movie version of a book she will lose interest in reading it. This is especially true of children who are struggling with reading, or teenagers who live in such a fast paced electronic whirlwind that they lose patience with the time it takes to read a novel, particularly a classic novel with somewhat arcane language. If the only experience one has with a particular book is through the movie version, he is missing out on a deeper, richer interpretation of the story. When a child reads a book before seeing a movie he understands the source of the story, makes the connection between written words and the images in the movie. The movie is not seen as an isolated experience. Having read the book allows the child to understand the movie in greater depth. There are many great authors (Pamela Travers, author of the Mary Poppins Series) who have been extremely disappointed with how their works were translated to film. Others, such as Raoul Dahl and Theodore Geisel had works sold posthumously to movie producers because the authors just didn’t believe that the experience that they wanted the reader to have could be translated well into film. Neither Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), A.A.Milne (Winnie the Pooh), nor Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) lived long enough to comment on the animated version of their classic works. So we can only wonder…

Letter, written in 1957 from J.D. Salinger regarding movie rights to Catcher in the Rye:



I love good films and would want every child to see the classic 1939 production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But read the book first. Let your child step into Dorothy’s slippers and walk the yellow brick road herself before the charming Judy Garland and the rest of her immensely talented companions, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, and Ray Bolger, completely capture her imagination. When a child first reads The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, she will discover that L.Frank Baum wrote a series of Oz books – all quite magical and wild, and rarely read by children today. One good book leads to others.

With very young children there may be other reasons to read the book first and wait until they are older before they see the movie. Child experts have noted that separation anxiety is frequently used as an emotional hook in Disney films. And, although children’s imaginings, when reading or being read to, are profound, they do not normally traumatize as many a villain in Disney movies have.


Charming as Disney characters can be, it is important not to lose site of the fact that Disney is a multi-billion dollar industry, thanks to your children. Although there have been recent attempts to break the traditional Princess roles, generally female characters in Disney films give young girls an unrealistic, highly commercialized standard of beauty that reinforces extreme and one dimensional gender role stereotypes. When reading the original fairy tales, there is much more emphasis on the idea that beauty is used as a metaphor for goodness, and not for selling back- packs. There is no question that movies, even those made specifically for children, have become more violent, and more realistic in that violence. This, paired with the easy access to movies in the modern home through internet streaming, cable, etc., is cause for concern. Children today watch far more movies than previous generations. The fast paced editing, garish coloring, casual violence, and loud sound tracks stimulate children who often internalize the conflicting emotions that arise – feelings which, with many children, can cause restlessness, anxiety, and aggressive behavior. Books calm children down, develop their cognitive abilities, and help them feel in control of their emotions. Rather than desensitizing them to violence, books help develop empathy and compassion for others. Often, young children are media illiterate and believe that what they see in the movies is true. They are better able to understand the role that “pretend” plays when reading a book.

In my experience teaching, I am surprised to see how many children don’t realize that their favorite movies began with books, and that some of these stories are over 100 years old – that someone had to first imagine a story and then write it down before a movie could be made. Understanding such simple facts broadens historical perspectives and helps comprehension. I don’t want my young students to think that they know the story of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Winnie the Pooh, or Alice in Wonderland based on the popular animated versions. I want them to be explorers in the world of literature. I want them to realize the art, truth, and beauty of these original stories.

The key to captivating children on the sultry beauty of language is to start early. Make it a family rule that your child reads the book before he sees the movie. If he is too young to read, read to him. I am a great believer in parents continuing to read stories to children long after they can manage the reading themselves. It is a delightful shared practice that tells your child how much you value literature, and how important it is for you to share that appreciation with him. If you pick the right books, especially those that you loved as a child, you will not regret it. It is a wondrous thing to read great stories aloud.

Finally, reading, because it is active rather than passive, helps to develop logic and cognitive skills. It improves concentration, comprehension, vocabulary, and writing skills. Or, put in a more succinct way:

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Albert Einstein