All people should spend time engaged in classic literature. It stretches our minds and causes us to analyze issues, think about themes, and see the world a little bit differently. I generally base my book judgments on whether or not a book changed me somehow. From the time we’re kids we should be engaged in reading classics (or having them read aloud). The most basic classic literature for kids consists of our fairy tales.
There are a huge number of people out there who make the case that fairy tales should be a thing of the past, that they are not politically correct, too violent, or just plain teach the wrong things. I hear arguments like:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs should be re-titled because “little people” is the pc term.
Cinderella will teach little girls improper gender stereotypes about a woman’s role being housework.
Reading Sleeping Beauty will cause nightmares.
Why is Red Riding Hood allowed to walk in the woods on her own? That’s just promoting dangerous behavior.
A Little Political Incorrectness
I believe great literature needs a little political incorrectness sometimes. We wouldn’t be the country we are today without people who stretched society’s norms – Thomas Jefferson challenged the power of government, Martin Luther King changed our definition of equal rights, and countless others have advanced science, religion, technology, standards of living, economy, and other ideologies by engaging in conversations that weren’t considered accepted in their times. I also believe that eliminating all the unpleasantness or uncomfortable ideas from literature leaves bland, watered-down ideas. I still can’t figure out how a parent can fear that a child will believe it’s okay to run off into the woods after reading Red Riding Hood’s account! T he way we learn from great literature is by discussing it. Any parent ought to be able to make the case to their kids that the walk alone proved dangerous. And every single fairy tale I’ve ever read provides a perfect platform for discussions.
Fairy Tales Are Part of Our Culture
Fairy tales are part of our cultural canon. They provide foundational archetypes for much of modern literature. They are full of rich language and themes. They teach about the ongoing battle between good and evil, and that being on the side of good is always the right choice. They teach about justice, bravery, and goodness. They provide an opportunity to discuss everlasting themes and begin to see the many shades of gray in the ethics of the world we live in. They spark imagination. They make us think.
After I read “Clifford” to my kids we all go on about our day. We are not changed. There is nothing to discuss. It is lacking a theme, strong characters, and great language. After we read “The Little Match Girl” we have cause to stop. We are changed, and realize that we have some power to change the world as well. We have power to help stop suffering. We feel great loss. We discuss her struggle, her goodness, and her tragedy. We go away better people.
Seeing the Good
I recently read a British study on fairy tales that revealed that the majority (I think it was around 78 percent) of parents would rather read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to their kids rather than Cinderella, citing reasons of poor lessons taught and lack of political correctness in Cinderella. I say: “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” promotes behavior that leads to obesity. I would never allow my children to read this dangerous book. (JOKE – I LOVE Eric Carle’s work and I love and own “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) Seriously though, I believe most of the arguments made against fairy tales are following those lines of reasoning. We can find the bad in anything, but when we do, we too often overlook all the good there is to offer. And there is so much good in fairy tales.
Just to be clear, the real classic literature is not generally presented by Disney. I am a Disney fan, but not as my provider of the classics! There are many versions of the fairy tales (if you haven’t read the original Brother’s Grimm you should! You’ll be shocked and amazed at how much we’ve changed the stories over time.) There are also many other great versions that teach wonderful lessons and make us think. I recommend Aesop’s Fables, D’Aulaires Myths, Mother Goose, and fairy tales from around the world.