When I was a little girl, I fell in love with fairy tales. My mom had a set of leather-bound antique books high on a shelf in the living room, the one room in the house where I wasn’t allowed to play. So of course, I crept in, climbed the shelves, and filched those books whenever Mom wasn’t watching. My favorite was the Grimm collection, chock full of stories with good and evil, and hideously gory endings. And my very favorite Grimm tale was Hansel and Gretel. Witches, gingerbread houses, jewels and brave, resourceful kids — what’s not to love?
I don’t think my family was at all surprised when my debut novel turned out to be a re-telling of Hansel and Gretel. Of course my story was much different, set in a modern school that boasted a breath-taking playground to put even a gingerbread house to shame, gourmet cafeteria meals, golden bowls of candy in every desk… and hungry-looking, possibly cannibalistic teachers.
With its pages full of nods to other famous fairy and folk tales like Vasalisa the Brave, La Llorona, and the Lorelei, readers of my novel will see at once that I’m a bit of a geek about these stories. What they may not realize is how strongly I feel that fairy tales – especially the scary “original” ones, like Hansel and Gretel – are a vital part of the repertoire for all young readers.
When I do school visits, I ask older elementary kids to raise their hands if they’ve read or heard the story of Hansel and Gretel. Usually, at least a third of the students do not know the story. (In a recent undergraduate lecture, ten percent of one class didn’t know it!)
I have to admit to being shocked. This is a huge number of kids who won’t ever understand the expression “a trail of breadcrumbs,” who won’t know that the wicked stepmother isn’t just a figure in Cinderella, and who won’t ever see gingerbread house decorating as anything other than a holiday ritual. (Am I the only one who pretended I was the witch, getting ready to fatten up my little brother? Hmm. Possibly.)
I wonder what the effects of the loss of these ancient teaching stories, with their compelling combination of magic and morals, will be on these generations. But I have hope — that books like mine and so many other authors who are re-imagining fairy tales, will lead curious young readers (and even their teachers and librarians) back to the old stories, and ignite a passion for them.
Who knows? The experience may even create a future author, one who’s not afraid to add a little old-fashioned scariness to their up-to-the-minute stories.
Our guest blogger today is Nikki Loftin, author of The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy (Razorbill, 2012). Nikki lives and writes just outside Austin, Texas, surrounded by dogs, chickens, and small, loud boys. Her next fairy tale re-imagining, Nightingale’s Nest, will be published in early 2014. You can visit her online at www.nikkiloftin.com, on twitter: @nikkiloftin, or on FB: Splendid Academy.
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Great post on fairy tales! Robert Bly once cited a study that showed that kids exposed to the older tales (as opposed to watered-down or mashup versions) do better in life.
My favorite tale right now is The Little Mermaid, for the purity of the heroine’s spirit.
But I also love Bly’s coverage of Iron Hans (in the bestselling book Iron John) and his lesser-known fairy tale treatments (available on audible now for 1.39 to non-members) Into the Deep: Male Mysteries (The Elves) and Male Naivete and Giving the Gold Away (The Devil’s Sooty Brother). So much wisdom there, for men and women.