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Maria Salvadore

Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

Why folk and fairy tales?

April 9, 2010

I'm frequently reminded that we want to sanitize the world for children, protect them from ugly truths. And, I suppose it's possible to some extent. But how do we help young children cope with the world that they live in without totally isolating them?

Maybe by introducing children to traditional tales while allowing them to take charge of the stories — like two remarkable teachers I know did recently.

These talented young women teach a mixed age group of linguistically and culturally diverse children at the early learning center at a local university. After watching children in the block area build castles and listening to them talk about magical themes (perhaps inspired by movies?), the teachers decided to build on — and out — from these interests.

And so began what was to become a multifaceted, 5 or 6 week examination of some well known — and potentially fear-inducing tales like "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Lots of things intrigued me about how the teachers expanded on what the young children already knew and creatively linked it to other more tangible aspects of their lives — all with a deep and abiding respect for the 3-5 year old's sensibilities.

I was particularly taken with the study of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." They shared several versions of the tale including a retelling by Paul Galdone. This old tale can be, well, a bit gruff — and might have been scary for the more apprehensive children.

Not, however, when those children were put in charge of the story. Not only was the troll made a bit silly when initially shared aloud by the teacher, the reality of trolls living under bridges was discussed as was the fate of the troll and the goats.

In fact, when the children dramatized the story — with a bridge made of sturdy blocks, goats wearing construction helmets (the children decided they were hard like Billy goat horns), the most apprehensive child assumed the role of none other than the troll. He literally took charge of the situation and his own concerns.

I grew up on these tales and was one of those kids who cheered when the bad guys (including trolls) got theirs. As an adult, I read psychologist Bruno Bettleheim's Uses of Enchantment (happily to be reissued next month by Vintage Books) which supported my take on the tales; that they help prepare children emotionally for real life experiences.

Rather than try to sanitize a child's world, I think it's better to acknowledge that it is sometimes scary — just like stories can be. It is still important for adults to pre-read and to consider what they share with children — and to let the child take charge. And that may mean closing a particular book.

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