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Grade Twelve: December's Focus - Fairy Tales

What to Do about Fairy Tales?

     The KISS Approach to teaching grammar is aimed at enabling students to intelligently discuss the sentence structure of any sentence that they read or write. In classrooms, the easiest way to reach that objective is to have the students begin by analyzing reading selections. This enables the class as a whole to analyze a common text, review it in class, and learn, for example, how to identify prepositional phrases. Once students have worked together on common texts, they can move on to examining samples of their own writing. A primary purpose of this web site is to provide literary exercises that teachers can use in the classroom. Ideally, these exercises should be based on reading selections, such that the students can analyze the syntax of parts of a text and also read and discuss the story or poem itself. Some of the most abundant sources of such texts are the many collections of fairy tales that are in the public domain. In my innocence, I had used some of these texts for exercises, particularly for grades three through five. Then I became aware of a problem.
     According to Diane Ravitch, both left- and right-wing pressure groups are attempting (and in many ways succeeding) to ban fairy tales from our school classrooms. The reasons of these two groups vary, of course, but in some ways they overlap. The claims, apparently, are that fairy tales are sexist, racist, pagan, and scary. {We don't want to scare children with stories of witches and goblins.)  Like most of the general public, I had considered fairy tales as stories for children. My own interest in reading began in my middle school years, with Zane Grey, and thus, although I was vaguely familiar with the most well-known of the stories, I am by no means an expert. But Ravitch's book presented me with a problem -- was I using harmful materials in the KISS site? Or, was I using materials that many teachers would be unable or unwilling to use in their classrooms? Some investigation was required.
      It so happened that I was simultaneously faced with another problem. I needed to have the students in my Introduction to Literature course do more research in at least one of their papers. The obvious solution was to put the students to work on the problem of fairy tales. Obviously I had to do some background reading myself, and I was surprised to find that specific fairy tales are not that specific. According to Maria Tatar, for example,

Knowing that Cinderella lives happily ever after with her stepsisters in some versions of her story and that doves are summoned to peck out the eyes of the stepsisters in others is something that parents will want to know when they read "Cinderella" to their children. That Little Red Riding Hood outwits the wolf in some versions of her story will be an important point to bear in mind when reading Perrault's version of the story, in which the girl is devoured by the wolf. Understanding something about how Bluebeard's wife is sometimes censured for her curiosity and sometimes praised for her resourcefulness will help adults reflect on how to talk about the story with a child. (xviii)
The problems involved in creating research asssignments for college students are beyond the scope of this little essay, so suffice it to say that I decided to present students with a limited number of options in each of which they would be given two distinct versions of a fairy tale. Their assignment is basically to compare the two versions and support their comparison with research.   [See the assignment.] Because I had already put some of the texts in this KISS site, and because I had just opened up twelfth grade for optional high school and college texts, I decided to put the fairy tales here. Thus December of Grade Twelve was made the the collection point.
     My decision to include them here was also influenced by Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment. Bettelheim, a widely recognized scholar of fairy tales and a child psychologist, argues that fairy tales are crucial for the mental health and development of children. Bettelheim's arguments are, at times, complex, but one of his most interesting is that parents and teachers should not interpret fairy tales for young children. Instead, they should simply be presented as stories. The children should be encouraged to discuss their own reactions to the tales, but the kind of adult interpretations that you will find explored here should definitely not be given to primary or even middle school students. I encourage anyone interested in the question to read Bettelheim's book, but his argument fits the KISS workbooks. For now, my intention is to still use selections from some tales for exercises in primary and middle school, but to collect the tales here. It is, of course, as always, up to teachers and parents as to whether or not they want to use these selections.
     There is, however, still another reason for using fairy tales within the KISS workbooks. The term "fairy tales" is actuallly a misnomer. Most of the tales have little, if anything to do with fairies, and even witches and monsters are absent from most of the tales. In essence these tales are the core of the oral literary tradition. They are written versions of stories that were told and retold, and, as Bettelheim suggests, they reflect the wisdom of generations of our ancestors.
     In creating this section of the web site, I have decided to use December First for general comments about fairy tales. Quotations from the critics not only presents background, but also some interesting exercises on syntax and style. The rest of the month will be devoted to explorations of individual tales. Among other things, I hope to present an overview of the major variations of different tales, thereby giving parents and teachers some help in deciding what they do and do not want to use.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. N.Y. Vintage Books, 1977.

Ravitch, Diane. The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. N.Y. Alfred A. Knopf. 2003.

Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. N.Y. W.W. Norton. 2002.

My Working Bibliographies

      These are placed here for my convience and include my notes, etc., but you are welcome to use them.

A Basic Bibliography of Criticism
Fairy Tales -- Collections


This border is based on an illustration by Anne Vaughan for "He Wins Who Waits" in Andrew Lang's Olive Fairy Book (Longmans, Green and Co., London. 1950).