Not-So-Scary Fairy Tales

Kick off your long weekend with some not-so-scary fairy tales from Susan…

I love reading fairy tales to my children. But, honestly, it’s difficult to find traditional stories that aren’t violent, disturbing, or even just plain bizarre.

According to psychologists (and those super-trendy Darwinist literary theorists), the frightening elements in fairy tales are actually useful — they can teach children how to protect themselves from the harsher aspects of life. Don’t talk to strangers, or a wolf will eat you. Don’t be lazy, or a wolf will blow down your house. Basically, watch out for wolves.

The stories can also help children explore their deepest fears and realize they can survive terrible events. Many classic fairy tales, for example, show orphaned or unloved children who triumph in the end, such as Snow White and Cinderella.

I agree that my kids listen to stories much more attentively than they listen to me. I even wish there were more fairy tales warning about contemporary dangers, such as The Two Little Children Who Crossed the Street without Looking or The Boy Who Ate Only Pasta. But some of the familiar fairy tales are just too much, especially for younger children.

That’s why I suggest the following books. They successfully tread the fine line between the complexity of the original tales and the blandness of some movie versions, so kids will get the basics of the stories without the nightmares.

Fairy Tales Re-told and Re-imagined

Red Riding Hood, retold and illustrated by James Marshall. This retelling glosses over the more violent parts of the tale and instead offers original flashes of humor. Yes, Granny and Red Riding Hood get eaten. After they’re rescued, however, Granny complains that it was too dark to read inside the wolf. Red Riding Hood shows she’s learned her lesson by refusing to talk to another charming stranger at the end of the story – a nattily-dressed crocodile. The text is concise and simple enough for even younger children, but Marshall slyly slips in a few longer words, too, such as “considerate” and “custard.”

The Three Snow Bears, by Jan Brett. In this retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a little Inuit girl loses her sled dogs and takes shelter in the house of a polar bear family. Jan Brett is a remarkable illustrator, with a lovely and unusual technique of providing illustrations in the margins to show what’s happening offstage to other characters. This book is a beautiful way to introduce kids to a different climate and culture, while still giving them a familiar story.

Mr Wolf’s Pancakes, by Jan Fearnley. When none of his neighbors will help him make pancakes, a wolf learns how to read a cookbook, shop, and cook – all by himself. The book offers a nice lesson in self-reliance, but with a twist – at the end of the story, the mean, greedy neighbors get eaten. The neighbors are characters from well-known fairytales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, so this would probably work best for an older child who already knows the traditional stories. Older children also won’t be disturbed by the wolf eating the other characters.

A First Book of Fairy Tales, retold by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Julie Downing. The book manages to condense some pretty complicated stories into manageable tales for slightly older children. Hoffman doesn’t alter the difficult parts, such as the unhappy ending of The Little Mermaid or the blinding of the prince in Rapunzel, but these events are quickly passed over to dwell more on the wonder of the magical elements. It’s a good introduction that preserves the traditional quality of fairy tales from Cinderella to Rumpelstiltskin. Even the Snow Queen actually makes sense!

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

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