Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why Fairy Tales Still Matter

Re-printed from Bear Pond Books Resources for Educators (K-12) and written by Helen Labun Jordan.
Why Fairy Tales Still Matter 
Why do fairy tales still matter? Lots of reasons. They've traveled around the world and across many generations. Some of them have been around for over a thousand years (an early form of Cinderella appeared in China in the 900's). They still spark imagination and address universal themes: good, bad, parents, children, love, jealousy, bravery, being eaten by wolves, being stolen by a witch, etc. They're foundational texts referenced throughout our current culture.

Do you need more reasons?

Meg Allison, librarian at Moretown Elementary School, joined us on Saturday, April 12th, to share her thoughts about fairy tales and what she learned on a summer trip to France and Italy supported by the Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship. You can read the background information on her talk here.

Early Interest in Fairy Tales

Meg remembers how fairy tales spoke to her sense of imagination and wonder as a child. These tales are often children's first introduction to creating new worlds through simple stories. Meg read books around her house that anthologized traditional fairy tales and her toys often had fairy tale themes. She was also fascinated by a handmade fairy tale picture book, The Magic Dollmaker, that her parents created when they were students in college.

As an educator (and parent) Meg can also see how fairy tales offer a symbolic way for kids to work through basic anxieties, like the tension between wanting to be good and occasionally straying off that path (like Goldilocks sneaking into the Three Bears' house). Or, the reality that we need to work through challenges that can seem overwhelming to get to our final goal (St. George and the Dragon, where he slays the dragon after 3 attempts). Or, children showing agency to find their way out of a difficult situation (Gretel pushing the witch into the oven in Hansel & Gretel).

Fairy tales have also been a common reference point across generations, kids hear the same tales their parents did, and see references to those stories in more contemporary work. The Dorothy Canfield Fisher list has two fairy tale related books this year (Frogged and Far, Far Away) and the Red Clover List has one too (Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs). But recognition of fairy tales is also fading. Meg asked one class to name their favorite fairy tales and their first answers were Frozen and Tangled (from the Disney movies). After a lot of prompting they thought of Cinderella. 

Why the fading fairy tale knowledge? Some of the answer may be the number of other stories competing for children's attention. Fairy tales have also fallen out of favor with some schools and parents because of their violence. Meg notes that the violence serves a symbolic function - the protagonists working their way through difficulty to reach the happy ending. It is often not realistic (the wolf eats Red Riding Hood then gets cut open and she's fine?). Meg agrees that some children are particularly sensitive-- in general, though, she sees the violent parts of fairy tales as a device to acknowledge the basic truth that sometimes bad things happen.

Traveling to France and Italy

One of the first questions Meg gets is - why start a fairy tale study in France and Italy? We associate fairy tales with Germany and the Brothers Grimm who recorded the oral storytelling traditions there. We know that Grimm Brothers were recording stories already commonly told in Germany in their lifetime. In fact, the written tales also predated the Grimm brothers by several generations and came from outside of Germany. The Pentamerone, written in the early 1600's in Italy, provided the basis for many Grimm tales, including Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and even Hansel & Gretel. Charles Perrault, in France, then adapted the Italian tales, plus added some new ones, to create Mother Goose tales. He used these tales to entertain the court of Louis XIV. Perrault's work eventually made its way to England where new variations became what we most commonly know as Mother Goose stories today. The Grimm brothers followed both Perrault and The Pentamerone by more than a century.

Fairy tales changed again in America, and in recent generations. From anthologies that often weren't visually appealing, American authors and illustrators created beautiful picture books. Some of Meg's favorites are pictured in this Pinterest Board.

Some of these picture books reflect the French and Italian roots of fairy tales. We looked at Ruth Sanderson's French-style Cinderella and at Paul O. Zelinsky's Rapunzel, with artwork inspired by the Italian Renaissance and Petrosinella, the Neapolitan telling of the Rapunzel story.

Fairy Tales in the Classroom & Library

Fairy tales present many possibilities for the classroom. First is simply learning the stories that have been told for so many generations. Fairy tales often are for slightly older children, but there are books like Yummy (recommended by Meg) designed for a pre-K or Kindergarten audience.

In older grades, teachers and librarians can get into more details about the story and also the history of the stories. In picture books there's an opportunity to discuss how the story and pictures connect with each other and with this history, for example with Zelinsky's interpretation of Rapunzel. You can also find fairy tale retellings in different cultures to compare - for example Cinderella (France),Cinderella (Korea), Cendrillon (Caribbean), The Rough-Face Girl (Native American).

Meg leads an activity with her students looking at the elements common across fairy tales: recurring patterns or numbers, magical happenings, royalty, special beginning, special ending, good characters, bad characters. Once they are anchored in these elements, students can move on to looking at how they appear in variations on the fairy tale form - for example Jon Sciezka's Fairly Stupid Tales.

Meg is starting on a project inspired by the doorways she saw touring the castles and other fairy tale settings of France and Italy. Using the figurative understanding of portals into the world of stories, plus the actual doorways of Moretown, students will be writing about their town's stories and history. You can see a longer article about classroom projects to explore town histories from our 2013 Exploring Family and Place talk.

The Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship

The Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship provides funding for summer studies designed by teachers in rural school districts. They award $10,000 for two teacher trips, $5,000 for single teachers. The goal is for teachers to travel and bring back travel experiences that enrich the classroom. You can read the blog from Meg's trip here.

Meg and another Moretown teacher, Pamela Dow, used the funds to travel through the settings of fairy tales in France and Italy. You can bring traveling companions (who pay their own flights, but can stay with you) so both Meg and Pam brought their daughters. Afterwards, the foundation brings together all Fellows from that year to share their experiences. Previous Fellows become reviewers for the next year's applications, and Meg notes that they give feedback on all applications so that teachers who don't get in one year can improve their application for the next year.

The Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship was made possible with funds from The Rural School and Community Trust, helping rural schools and communities grow better together. Read more about the program at the website for the Rural School and Community Trust.

And that is the end of our 2013-2014 educator events! Later this summer, we'll be asking about topics of interest for 2014-2015 - if you have any feedback to give right now e-mail helen@bearpondbooks.com or see Jane in the Children's Room. Thank you for joining us and for your support of Bear Pond Books.