Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Fairy Tale World of Children's Literature

Charles Perrault. Jean de la Fontaine. The Brothers Grimm.
Do these names mean anything to you? If not, then I must say you've had a very deprived childhood, for they are the names of the authors of the world's best-known and most-read fairy tales...or maybe not so deprived after all.

For quite a while now, even before the arrival of my nephew I'd been taking little jogs down memory lane thinking of all the stories that fired my imagination, the authors I adored and the books that were worn by repeated reading sessions during the vacations. On one of these many jogs, I chanced upon a collection of fairy tales by the Grimm brothers - the stories as it turned out, did complete justice to their name! I was quite appalled at the rather grim and depressing twist to all the stories! It was then, that I started thinking about the other fairy tales I knew - and surprisingly most of them had a depressing twist and very few actually had happy endings. I recently simplified the original story of Red Riding Hood (otherwise known as Le Petit Chaperon Rouge) by Charles Perrault, to narrate to my students and ofcourse it ends with Red Riding Hood being devoured by the wolf. My students didn't quite stomach the abrupt ending - most of them recalled a different, happier ending!

Over the centuries some of the stories have been adapted and changed to end on a more happy note - but the originals were not as optimistic in their outlook towards life. I was actually quite disturbed by this - to think that this was the stuff children grew up on, stuff that told of children being eaten up wolves and witches, of wishes granted by fairies being wasted because of one's foolishness, of nasty stepmothers and evil godmothers! But then I realised that they didn't present a lop-sided image of the world (though imaginary) where everything went well and everyone was good. While some stories had grim endings, others ended on a happy note. Compare Red Riding Hood and The Sleeping Beauty. Even Blue Beard, that scary tale of the evil man who killed his wives, ended on a happy note.

Further reading into the subject revealed that the stories when first written weren't necessarily intended for the juvenile audience they are associated with today - a majority of the stories were penned for the purpose of narration around the community fire, and many were actually transcribed after years of being passed down by the oral tradition. It would be interested to study this further and understand how and why the stories evolved into being stories for children!

Having recently read some new books under the genre of Children's Literature, namely, The Giver and Walk Two Moons given to me by Extempore, I have been trying to find books like that. I was in Manney's recently (perhaps the best bookstore in Pune, dating back to 1948) and browsing through the children's section, where apart from the Enid Blyton's, Malory Towers, St.Clare's, Anne of Green Gables and the many classics that I associate with my own childhood, I saw the other books that today fall under the genre of Children's Literature.Without taking names, I must say I was glad I was born in a different century when children's literature was not so complicated, and even with the grim endings fairy tales were that and nothing more!


fusenumber8 said...

Perhaps if you are looking for good children's literature, you might wish to consider looking at the best children's book of 2006. It's called "Fly By Night" by Frances Hardinge and tis hilarious! And no, I am not paid by Hardinge to promote her so abruptly. I'm just a simple children's librarian with a penchant for fabulous kiddie lit.

Read "Fly By Night"!

Liese C. Khanna said...

TH White was recently (?re-)published in Germany as LILLIPUT IM EXIL. That prompted me to pick up the original MISTRESS MASHAM'S REPOSE. I enjoyed it. I read children's lit from time to time.

You're very right. I was also surprised about the brutal contents of many traditional children's stories. As a child they didn't abhorr me. I slept better then than now. I wonder if having noticed those things, we'll read the same stories to children. Maybe I wouldn't be able then, to keep a sober voice and they would really be spooked. My mother made this discovery only later and wondered to myself how she could read those tales to us. I'll ask her what she reads to children now. I've only seen her with my niece's Disney (c) books. I don't like Disney (c) anymore at all.

Kavita Ghone read stories of a blue donkey at some Eng Dept reading, modern tales with a feminist touch. I'll check the author. I liked those. Or what Mala Pandurang brought into class with Draupadi being completely stripped; that shamed the men more than her being covered by an endless sari.
But I think children don't find the old tales engrueling (?) and one could still discuss with them why the princess sits and waits for the knight while she could defy the dragons herself. Better, why or whether the dragon is the bad guy.

You really turn into the Bookie Auntie, don't you? (last two posts)