Tips & Advice

10 Reasons Why Kids Need to Read Non-Disney Fairy Tales

by Melissa Taylor

Photo credits: Catherine Lane, E+/Getty Images

Say “fairy tales” and your mind likely flashes to Disney and its animated versions of children’s classics. But old-school fairy tales — stories by authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde, Sophie, Comtesse de Ségur, or Andrew Lang — are filled with a richness and complexity that is often missing from their big-screen renderings. Here are ten reasons it’s worth reading the original stories with your young reader.

  • 1. Life Lessons

    Remember the line from The Princess Bride: “I do not think it means what you think it means”? Many of the moral lessons in the original stories are quite different from the Disney versions. Hans Christian Andersen didn’t write “The Little Mermaid” to teach us how to marry a prince, but to warn us that our actions have consequences. As Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller explained, “Deeper meaning resides in the fairytales told me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”

  • 2. Hope

    Many fairy tales offer hope — hope of redemption, hope that good can conquer evil, hope that our enemies will be vanquished. G.K. Chesterton said it best, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

  • 3. Shared Mythology

    When kids know a familiar canon of stories — such as “Goldilocks and The Three Bears” or “Rapunzel” — they have a shared foundation, a common mythology. From an educator’s perspective, this is invaluable.

    What’s more, this background knowledge helps us to have a richer, more fulfilling literary experience. For example, last year my kids and I read several books about fairy tale lands (The Land of Stories, Ever After High, and Storybound). To fully enjoy each of these books, we needed knowledge of the original fairy tale stories that they reference.

  • 4. What's Possible

    Fairy tales expand our idea of what’s possible in this world. The stories add fairies, magicians, giants, and trolls to our ordinary world, pushing our imaginations to soar with notions of “What if ___ were real or would happen?” And even though we know these stories aren’t really true, we still like to believe they are.

  • 5. Cultural Appreciation

    There’s nothing like reading Arabian Nights stories, Norse mythology, or African folk tales to give children an introduction to a particular culture. Especially with stories that are similar to each other, such as “Lon Po Po” and “Red Riding Hood,” which each bear the uniqueness of the narrator’s culture and traditions.

  • 6. Short Stories

    Fairy tales don’t require hours of reading. Their length is an attractive feature for children in general and reluctant readers in particular. Open an anthology and pick one or two stories without reading cover to cover.

  • 7. Scary in a Safe Context

    Fairy tales allow kids to learn how to deal with scary situations. As readers, we put ourselves into the stories. But since they’re stories, we don’t have to experience the scary firsthand. Instead, we see how the characters face their fears and we learn from their experiences.

  • 8. Hard Truths

    Like life, many fairy tales don’t have happy endings. Bad things do happen. Read the stories with your kids and talk about them. C. S. Lewis believed that “sometimes fairy stories say best what needs to be said.” After reading, ask your kids, “Is the story telling you a truth about the world?”

  • 9. Gateway to Fantasy

    Fairy tales introduce children to the genre of fantasy. In fact, fairy tales are beloved by many fantasy authors, like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Fairy tales whet kids’ appetites for magic and pave the road for more reading about fantasy worlds.

  • 10. Princesses Don't Have a Dress Code

    It’s important to remember that Disney isn’t the authority on fairy tales. Read the great fairy tale authors to see for yourself. Discover princesses who aren’t dressed in the requisite pink, blue, or yellow. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even find that you like troll princesses better than Cinderella.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.”–Albert Einstein

Comments
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  • I also love helping children explore other cultures through fairy and folk tales. It’s amazing how many versions there are of certain fairy tales like Cinderella that appear across cultures.0l9

    • it’s fascinating and really gives us new cultural awareness!

  • Gloria Lisa Todd

    Melissa, any recommendations of collected, traditional Fairytales?

    • Gloria, I would start with The Golden Book of Fairy Tales (Golden Classics) illustrated by Adrienne Segur as well as A Treasury of Children’s Literature edited by Armand Eisen. Hope that helps!

    • Amensej

      Han’s Christian Anderson originals, the Brothers Grimm originals, and remember that the originals were NOT pc correct in many cases lol

    • Erika

      Excellent post. We love this gorgeous collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales from Usborne – http://x3336.myubam.com/p/4447/illustrated-hans-christian-andersens-fairy-tales-ir

  • Johnny H. Karlsson

    I’m not a parent and don’t intend to be one anytime soon, but I think that it would be worth mentioning the illustration and artwork. I’ve recently gone back and looked at story books from my childhood and found myself blown away at the quality of art.

    • So true – we have Beauty and the Beast by Max Eilenberg, illustrated by Angela Barrett. It’s worth owning for the beautiful artwork alone.

  • That was a fantastic post. Sure, there is more to fairy tales than big screen versions. In my view, the freedom of thought is always developed by books, than movie. (A child can imagine how Cinderella would have talked and how Rapunzel’s hair would be flowing down, without being shown in visuals).

    • thanks!
      (& unfortunately, once kids see the movies, those images stick, preventing their imaginations to reign free.)

  • Peggy McAloon

    Thank you for supporting the premise that fairy tales can create situations to inspire our children to be better! It’s the primary reason I decided to use a fairy tale to teach kids to stand up to social injustices.

  • Latimer

    Folk Tales from any culture (I use Irish and Celtic) also provide cultural differences. I was raised on a street with 47 children from all walks of life and all religions. My son is being raised the same, but unfortunately the school districts are not doing enough to promote tolerance. They may say they are against bullying, but I have first hand proof they do nothing and the leaders of the bullies are usually Teachers (I have reported 4 to the district where I work) and NOTHING WAS DONE. One teacher in particular still tosses things at students and hits them over the head with clip boards. BUT, thankfully Fairy Tales (the old traditional ones) have given him the strength to continue on and made the world a better place. I still associates with the children who protected him (who asked their parents to make the teacher stop) and they are all different Nationalities and Religions and Abilities. Proud to see the tradition is rubbing off for these children. Don’t just say you are pro-diversity unless you practice it (and for the record my son is White)

  • Actually, of the 10 on the list, 7 (all except 1, 8, and 10) could apply equally to the Disney versions. For example, ask someone to name the 7 Dwarfs. A lot of people will come up with the list (Happy, Dopey, Doc, Sleepy, Bashful, Grumpy, Sneezy). That was Disney’s invention. Walt Disney loved the classic fairy tales, because they were timeless stories. Witness the success of this year’s live Cinderella movie. Plus, they were public domain, so he could rewrite them as he saw fit. He made sure “they all lived happily ever after.” The tide started to turn with 2001’s Shrek, which skewered all of the Disney conventions, except the last one–they all lived happily ever after. Now, the newer Disney movies have some bite to them.

  • PernRider

    My daughters, in the past year or so, have discovered Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and they love them, the darker the better. For Christmas, my youngest got her very own copy, in fact; she’s seven, and reads it at bedtime, both to herself and to her nine-year-old sister. We actually enjoy discussing the differences between the original (Grimm’s) version and what’s seen in Disney, although my 13-yo particularly enjoys that (she’s a Disneyphile).

    I loved to see that, in “Into the Woods”, a lot of the darker bits were kept; it wasn’t all sunshine, but it still managed to have morals, in particular that there are sometimes more than one solution to a problem, and that actions can have far-reaching and unexpected consequences.

  • Mari Boyle

    I’ve always been a big fan of traditional fairytales, and as our family is one of mixed heritage I found that telling the kids stories from both backgrounds, English and Japanese was a wonderful way to help them value both cultures – also the morality base can be different in each culture, so that Japanese stories don’t always have a good vs evil scenario. Trad tales really are an excellent way to spread the message of diversity.

  • Carole

    Well absolutely, when I was a child I loved Disney but I also was an avid reader of the other versions of the Tales. Call me curious.

    I still own many versions of the traditional European fairy tales we all know but also Tales particular to Russia, Scandinavia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain etc..

    But one should not confuse Writers’ original Tales (H.C Andersen’s tales, Mme Le Prince de Baumont’s tales – she wrote the most popular version of Beauty and the Beast…) with Tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc… which were traditional Folk Tales collected from people on the street and retold in a more literary way for all to read and enjoy.

    Characters such as Cinderella, Puss in boots, Hansel and Grettel, Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty , were actually first collected in Europe in an Italian Folks tale Book called the Pentamerone written by Giambattista Basile in 1634. The stories are rather different from the versions we know today…Cinderella was not such a sweet innocent girl after, having her 1st mother in law murdered by her maid.. and a lot of the tales are not very “politically correct!”

    Nevertheless, a lot of these old Folk tales show women as being the strong ones/the heroes going to save to prince they love…and not the other way around..or refusing to be forced into doing things they don’t like.

    And These tales in the Pentamerone date back to the 17th Century..!

    Then Charles Perrault in France wrote his own collection of tales called “Histories et Contes du temps passé” (Mother Goose’s Tales) in 1697, also in the 17th century, which is a good 2 centuries before the Grimms.

    Perrault (like te Grimms after him) based his tales on the Basile’s versions (Cinderella , Puss in boots..)

    And it is also thought that some of the Perrault’s retellings also influenced the Grimms’ .

    Note that the Term “Fairy Tale” was actually coined in France by Mme D’Aulnoy in the 17th Century. Mme D’Aulnoy was a very prolific Fairy tales writer herself but hers were original stories as opposed to collected traditional Folk tales .

    Now obviously all folk tales have a much older origin…Greek Mythology, Indian, Chinese..Actually I think the earliest version of Cinderella ever found was Chinese?

    I’m just always amazed that nowadays people don’t have any interest in trying alternatives to what they know and marvel at movies such as “Frozen” or “Snow-White” because of how “modern” and “ground-breaking” they are (advocating girl power etc..) .

    6 centuries ago, the concepts were already there!

    Looks to me that we are just reiventing the wheel..

  • I have been looking for some good ideas of books to read to my daughter. Thanks for the ideas. Love the quote by Einstein!

  • HealThyself

    The one book I have ever thrown away was Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I would not want to read it to a young child.

    Banned Books Week: The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales:
    http://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/09/27/banned-books-week-grimms-fairy-tales

    Why I Don’t Want to Read Fairy Tales to My Daughter: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/02/why_i_don_t_want_to_read_fairy_tales_to_my_daughter_.html

    Are Fairy Tales Really for Children? http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/are-fairy-tales-really-for-children/?_r=0

    Pat

    :

  • peter wassink

    About Point 8), i like what Neil Gaiman has to say about that:

    “I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids—and in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back. Tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that….”
    https://vimeo.com/109769310