Once upon a time, there was a girl who didn’t read proper fairy tales …

When I was little, the books I enjoyed reading the most were fairy tales. My childhood favourite was the Puffin A Book of Princesses selected by Sally Patrick Johnson published in 1965. It’s a great collection combining old tales like The Twelve Dancing Princesses with ones by E E Nesbit and Oscar Wilde. I still have my copy somewhere complete with coloured in illustrations.

Soon, I was devouring the wonderful fairy tale collections of Andrew Lang. I’ve been addicted to fairy tales ever since, building up a collection of volumes from around the world together with commentaries on the subject.

Lang’s collections comprise twelve volumes in every colour of the rainbow, not to be confused with the Rainbow Magic franchise that today’s early readers are offered. There are over 150 of these tediously similar stories for little girls now! My daughter did read some of them when she was five or six, but by the time we’d read maybe a dozen, she lost interest, (phew!). These books are written by a wide range of authors under the name Daisy Meadows, and always feature two schoolgirls Kirsty and Rachel who have adventures with their fairy friends. I’m sure they do have some value in building confidence in young readers, but they are seriously formulaic, very sanitised, and frankly no-one needs 150 of them.

Many of the traditional fairy tales were not written specifically for children, although they were included in the intended readership by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s for instance.  In their original versions, some of these tales are very dark indeed, being full of violence with people getting eaten by wolves as in Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood, (1697) or tragic like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid and Little Match Girl, (1830s-40s).

With all the animated Disney adaptations, enjoyable as they are, but which reinvent the traditional tales with new happy endings, and the formula books mentioned above, I feel that general opinion has rather dumbed down fairy tales as stories for young children. We know better.  My daughter, however, gave up fairy tales completely – swapping them for family dramas by Jacqueline Wilson, Hilary McKay, Sophie McKenzie et al.  Quietly, I despaired…

…then a couple of days ago, I found her starring at my Folio fairy tale shelf …

She was admiring the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, and she said could we start reading them.  We started with Lang’s rather different version of the Three little pigs from the Green Fairy Book, but then she decided she wanted to start at the beginning and read all of them – so back to the Blue Fairy Book (which is the first chronologically too, but I’ll have to adjust the order of the others though on the shelf!).

I asked why the sudden interest? She said that she hadn’t realised that the Three little pigs was considered a fairy tale, and that they didn’t necessarily have to have fairies in. That, plus she liked the book colours and covers. I hope her interest is sparked by reading these together, and that she can cope when we do meet a fairy, especially as the violet and brown volumes will be joining the others soon!

Do you have an opnion about the dumbing down of traditional folk and fairy tales?
Is our current fad for ghosts, vampires & zombies squeezing fairies out?
Which are your favourite fairy tales?

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To explore further at the Folio Society or Amazon UK, click on the links below:
Folio Society – Andrew Lang Fairy Books (Membership requirements apply)Book of Princesses (Puffin books)selected by Sally Patrick Johnson (available second-hand)
The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage Classics)
Fairy Tales (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions)
The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford World’s Classics)
Olympia the Games Fairy (Rainbow Magic) by Daisy Meadows

13 thoughts on “Once upon a time, there was a girl who didn’t read proper fairy tales …

  1. Alex says:

    Well, it depends on the level of the ‘dumbing down’. You probably don’t want your daughter reading the original of Sleeping Beauty where the prince rapes her before he wakes her. But when it comes to 150 adventures of Rachel and Kirsty then that’s taking supporting readers too far.

    • gaskella says:

      Ah! – you’re referring to the Italian original ‘Sun, Moon & Talia’ which Perrault himself adapted. I’ve not read it, but did read a very grown-up Robert Coover novella last year called ‘Briar Rose’ which had elements of that in – very disturbing. Luckily, the Robert Lang books are, as far as I remember – and I read them when very young, totally suitable for children.

  2. Kate Belcher says:

    Zombies, vampires et al are the bane of my life. The real-world mundane meanderings of Jacqueline Wilson can join that happy band. I adore fairy tales, the darker, the better. They are there to scare and educate as well as to explore the vast imagination of adults and children. I love modern equivalents; Mercedes Ice by Philip Ridley, My Dad’s A Birdman by David Almond to name just two of my recent favourites.

    • gaskella says:

      I don’t know about your daughter Kate, but mine won’t read anything with Z&V either – yet! (all her mates are getting into Twilight etc – we’re sticking to the films, shorter and less angsty). I notice *with tongue in cheek*, you didn’t mention the Rainbow Fairies …

      I’ve tried to encourage her to read some adventure stories, but haven’t fought it knowing that she’ll find her own way, (she’s as stubborn as I am), so this new interest in fairy tales is very encouraging. I’ll check out the two you mention as I love modern equivalents too.

      • Kate Belcher says:

        Ruby is not at all interested in Z&V, thank goodness. Too scary and bloody. She’s just venturing into Harry Potter and the Dementors are about as much as she can stand. Rainbow Fairies do not deserve a mention…

  3. helen says:

    Hello Gaskella? Annabel? I’m not sure how you like to be addressed. 😉 I’ve just clicked through from Stuck-in-a-Book’s blog roll and this is the first post I see, and now I am writhing in envy at your beautiful Folio fairy tales and also The Book of Princesses. If this is the general effect of your blog I may not be able to come back very often!

    I don’t really mind the dumbing down of fairy tales, they seem pretty tough and able to withstand it (although I’m not sure how much Bowdlerisation for children is really necessary; I seem to remember Rapunzel ends up with a bun in the oven doesn’t she? And Donkeyskin’s father wanted to marry her, and two of the little pigs get scoffed… and none of these things ever troubled me, mind you I was rather thick). I do object, however, to the crap versions swamping everything else. Stay in your corner, Disney.

    As well as the Andrew Langs, I loved the Ruth Manning-Sanders retellings of fairy tales (there was one about goblins in the bath house which has particularly stuck in my mind) and Joan Aiken’s The Kingdom Under the Sea.

    • gaskella says:

      Welcome Helen. There is a lot of underage (by today’s standards) marrying off isn’t there! The violence tends to be matter of fact – almost cartoonish, in most cases, and most children take that in their stride I think. I probably read the other books you mention when young, but can’t remember them so more to look up…

  4. victoriacorby says:

    I had the Puffin Book of Princes as well and adored it. We have my grandmother’s, very well used and coloured in, copies of Lang’s Fairy Tales which on re-reading with my daughters I realised are much darker (and more politically incorrect) than the versions of today. There was also a nineteenth century editions of Grimm’s fairy tales in the house, my mother tried to stop me reading it – with no success. I adored them even if The Red Shoes and the Grimm’s version of Cinderella (where the ugly sisters cut off their toes and heel to fit into the glass slipper and the prince beheads them ) gave me nightmares. So did Marianne Dreams and I loved that too.

    My girls tended to read a lot of fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones for example and then moved onto vampires, but not sexy vampires. They were all unitied (a rare occurance) in their loathing of any sort of squelchy stuff in books and that went for Judy Blume too.

    • gaskella says:

      Another fan of Marianne dreams – my favourite children’s novel which I reread this spring see here! My daughter won’t read it as the stones with eyes are just too close to the Weeping Angels from Dr Who for comfort which do give her nightmares. Unfortunately DWJ was too late for me to read as a child, but I’ve read and enjoyed some of them since. Love your term squelchy stuff – my daughter doesn’t like it either!

  5. Karen says:

    I suspect the popularity of the Rainbow Magic books has more to do with a love of collecting, than for the stories themselves. Think stamps for little girls. The Folio books are for collecting too, but not at pocket money prices.

    As a girl, I didn’t care much for fairy stories. The sanitised ones were too fluffy for my tastes, and I was too afraid of the darker ones.

    Incidentally, I was named after Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Red Shoes’, one of my mother’s favourite stories.

  6. gaskella says:

    My daughter liked colouring in the pictures in the Rainbow fairies rather than actually reading them… I know what you mean about the collecting. (Of course I actually read my Folio books – well, at least look at the pictures). My favourites are HCA’s I think, and the Red Shoes is one of the finest tales.

  7. sakura says:

    I adored the Andrew Lang fairy tale books but can’t remember exactly when I read them (I’m sure it was before I was 11 though). It’s funny how my parents never foisted books on my but I somehow managed to find lots of wonderful titles in my school library. I’m trying very hard not to dictate my nephews reading when they keep picking up books I’ve never heard of just so I don’t put them off reading in the first place!

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