Quick Guide to Children’s Books 6: Fairy and folk tales

The world of children’s literature is an enchanting place which often looks like a colourful maze with imaginary creatures in fantastic worlds. These creatures and worlds are mostly versions of our own realities, and through them we can learn more about our own worlds, and through the words and the images in the stories we can explore our own lives, reflecting on its beauties and dealing with its difficulties.

When you enter a book shop, these miniworlds which we call picture books are well-organized on shelves, usually labelled and categorized in a systematic way. There are picture books, silent books, illustrated books, comics, graphic novels, poetry books and many more formats. What is the difference between these books? What are their main characteristics?

In this series we will explore the world of children’s books together, providing definitions and examples for each main type of books. In this sixth part we enter the truly magical world of fairy and folk tales.

Wolf on his very best behaviour with Little Red Riding Hood.

Welcome to the world of ‘real’ magic

Dwarves, dragons, fairies, giants, gnomes, unicorns, witches, elves and talking animals. Magical transformations and enchantment await us in the exciting genres of fairy and folk tales, two of the most powerful pillars of children’s literature. In them everything is possible, just as it has been possible for them to survive the test of time. The origin of most of these stories is almost impossible to trace, and we could well argue that their secret is not in their origin but rather in their evolution, the journey they have made through the tradition of oral storytelling.

Let’s see some functions and characteristics of these tales and equip ourselves with the tools to explore them.

Intertextuality

Try this simple activity in class. Ask your students to retell the story of Little Red Riding Hood or any popular tale you know they are familiar with. What’s interesting is that whether you are talking to a group of children, teens or adults, they are rarely able to recreate the full story or agree on the details. This experience resonates with Scieszka’s comment which says that ‘Everyone knows the story of the Three Little Pigs. Or at least they think they do.’

Fairy and folk tales are so deeply embedded in our collective memory and oral culture that we do not and probably cannot agree on a single version of them. These tales are interconnected and have been influenced by many other stories, not only national or global ones, but also by our own personal experiences. At the same time the stories of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty resemble each other when you pay attention to their ‘deep structure’ (Propp, 1928) and start noticing how they are both tales of female initiation.

Adaptation

Fairy and folk tales have survived and thrived not only because of oral tradition and subsequently various written versions, but also because of the never-ending adaptations in modern fiction, advertising and music. How many different versions do you know of Little Red Riding Hood? Here is a short list to help you start thinking about intertextuality and adaptations.

  • Charles Perrault: “Little Red Riding Hood” (1697)
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: “Little Red Cap” (1812)
  • Andrew Lang: “Little Red Riding-Hood” (1889)
  • Angela Carter: “The Werewolf”, “The Company of Wolves” (in The Bloody Chamber, 1979)
  • Neil Jordan: The Company of Wolves (1984)
  • Terry Pratchett: Witches Abroad (1991)

Reading the adaptation by Angela Carter or watcihng Neil Jordan’s film can be an excellent lesson idea for young adult and adult learners as they will all share some kind of background knowledge which can be a starting point for discussions and langauge work. Do read and watch first, as some students may find the adaptations upsetting.

Helbling Young Readers adaptations of classic fairy and folk tales

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Read more about fairy tales and folk tales and get more book recommendations and lesson ideas:

Check out the other articles in our Quick Guide to Children’s Books series.

References

  • Propp, V. (1928/1968) Morphology of the Folktale, Austin: Texas University Press.
  • Scieszka, J. (1989) The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, New York: Viking.

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