My childhood house had books, no TV, and more books. My sisters and I were read to, found solace in reading, and engaged with words almost constantly. Given the time and place we lived and my undergraduate studies in anthropology, I have a very critical eye regarding messaging in books and other media. This all boils down to wanting lots of books for my children while being very hard to please in the selection of those books.
Disney marketing has penetrated my daughter’s world, and along with that comes fairy tales. I love fairy tales, but I don’t love how they have been warped to be about helpless princesses dressed in sparkly pink. Even in classic fairy tales, there are strong messages about roles, beauty, purpose, and much more. They take some active reading to help children digest them. The archetype of the evil stepmother for instance, is important to confront. I do not want that to sink in and my daughter to react to any of her peers’ step mothers. The connection between physical beauty and goodness is another thing to explore as well as what beauty is.
Recently, my mother gave my daughter a collection of nursery tales illustrated and retold by Mary Englebreit. My daughter loves these stories, but I have run up against a few that have been over-sanitized and even changed in ways that radically alter the characters and their motivations. One that stands out for me is Jack and the Beanstalk. In this version, Jack’s mother is a former noble woman who had fallen on hard times and whose castle had been stolen away. Perhaps this was part of the older versions, but I sure don’t remember that. To me, they had always been poor and living off the milk of that one cow. Once up the beanstalk, we are informed that the giant’s castle is actually Jack’s mother’s stolen castle. This begs the questions of how it was moved and how it now fits a giant and his wife, but suspension of belief is critical for these things to work anyway. The three objects are brought out in one sitting rather than having Jack steal them one at a time and the giant set a trap for him. Upon returning to the ground and felling the beanstalk and giant, Jack’s mother recognizes the goose as her long lost pet. They then get a castle to live in happily. Having the castle and goose be stolen goods from his mother makes Jack’s stealing seem much more ethical and the death of the giant more justified. There is much less gray in terms of Jack’s character and the giant’s, for that matter. The idea that happiness stems from living in a castle and that the two of them belonged in one because that is where they really had come from also changes the story for me.
I do read these stories with my daughter, but I needed something to balance them out. I had bought a book of fairy tales a while back as a present for one of my daughter’s friends, so I returned to our local independent bookstore and found another copy of that book. Classic Fairy Tales told by Berlie Doherty is a nice collection of fairly standard tales that have been researched to find a version that reads well and includes some of the pieces eradicated over time. The same issues of stereotypes are there, but the stories read really well. Above that, the illustrations are wonderful, multi-racial, and a great springboard for discussion. One of the wonderful things that has come from reading these stories has been the metaphor of Rapunzel’s tower. My daughter has been fascinated by the story, and when she started getting overly worked up when my wife was leaving town for a day, I was able to use the idea of the tower as a way showing how we treat the people we love with freedom or restriction. We can understand how the witch felt in her deep love and wanting to keep Rapunzel for herself, but we also see how that made Rapunzel unhappy. This metaphor has been amazing, since that moment, in helping my daughter allow people to have space and for her to not get upset or fixated on people leaving.
I still need to get a good selection of well-written and illustrated tales from different cultures, animal tales, and other short stories like these. My daughter is enjoying them and really loves stories with some moral or value to talk about. In my search I turned up an out of print book, Stories for Free Children, which is a collection of short stories that provide an alternative to conventional children’s literature. The book originated a regular feature in Ms. Magazine and then served as an inspiration for Free to Be You and Me. This collection really aligns with the values and messaging I would like to see more of in more books. Many stories are above my daughter’s readiness, but they are there on the near horizon waiting to give her balance and alternatives, ready to help her make decisions for herself and to build her own self image rather than having it constructed for her out of plastic and sequins. Maybe those will be part of her choices, but with this and other books like it she will have a radically expanded palette of choices available to her.