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 beauty and dealing with its difficulties.
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.
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.
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 language work. Do read or watch any adaptation before you suggest it in class, as some students may find them upsetting.
Helbling Young Readers adaptations of classic fairy and folk tales
- The Hare and the Tortoise
- The Three Goats
- Little Red Riding Hood
- The Leopard and the Monkey
- Peach Boy
- The Fisherman and his Wife
- Beauty and the Beast
- Lusmore and the Fairies
Read more about fairy tales and folk tales and get more book recommendations and lesson ideas:
- Once upon a time...
- Twice upon a time...
- The Power of Stories
- The power of folktales in the language classroom
- Fairies, flutes and flowers...
- Turning Japanese with Momotarō and Elly Nagaoka
- Let's go to Norway with The Three Goats
Check out the other articles in our Quick Guide to Children's Books series.
- Quick Guide to Children's Books 1: Picture books
- Quick Guide to Children's Books 2: Silent books
- Quick Guide to Children's Books 3: Illustrated fiction
- Quick Guide to Children's Books 4: Comic books and graphic novels
- Quick Guide to Children’s Books 5: Children's poetry
- 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.