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.”
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