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Folk and Fairy Tales in the Classroom: the ‘coin and currency of culture’ Part 3 (of 4)

This four-part blog started as a lecture that I was invited to give at the Robert Musil Literature Museum, Klagenfurt in Austria . I have tried to maintain the accessibility of the original lecture in this written version, but have developed the argument, providing more in-depth analysis and extending the references to include more theoretical perspectives.

So that it is not too much of a read in one go, I have broken the article down into four sections and will post them in turn, as each part is completed:

Part 1 - Introduction

  • Story reading or storytelling?

  • Little Red Riding Hood – a short case study

  • Sticky Stories – and what makes them stick?

  • The Hound Gelert – a short case study

Part 3

  • Developing a critical approach to folk and fairy tales

  • Whose culture – race, ethnicity and religion

  • Whose culture – gender and relationships

  • The role of folk and fairy tales in the life of the child

  • Conclusion

Developing a critical approach to folk and fairy tales

Our priority in the world of children’s books should not be to promote ideology but to understand it, and find ways of helping others to understand it, including the children themselves. (Hollindale, 2011: 36)

In Part 1 of this blog (CLICK HERE), I discussed whether we should revise folk and fairy tales so that they

cannot be seen to legitimise various forms of child abuse (where abandonment, forced marriage, murder, etc. are seen as simply the way that the world is), or be employed as a meansof explaining suffering away (if you are good, then everything will turn out well). I cited Zipes’ (1995) concern that we should reframe traditional stories so that we don’t promote malign messages about children’s worth, but I then went on to explore how Winston (1998) provides a corrective to such a revisionist approach, suggesting that taking a critical stance to story ensures that the classroom is a place in which socially-destructive messages (whether implicit or explicit) can be challenged. Paulo Friere, the Brazilian philosopher, is often regarded as the founding thinker behind what has been come to be called ‘critical literacy’, stating (in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed), that when a reader takes a critical stance, they ‘move beyond passively accepting the text’s message to question, examine, or dispute the power relations that exist between readers and authors’ (1997 (1970): 14). Like Friere, Hollindale (in the quote which heads this part of the blog) refers explicitly to children reading texts, but what both of these writers have to say about taking a critical stance is as relevant to the story told as the story read, and it is the potential for folk and fairy tales to be examined critically in the classroom that I intend to explore here.

In pursuit of the classroom being a place in which children are encouraged to be critical, Johnston and Rogers (2006) suggest a series of strategies:

Strategies to enable readers to ask how a text might have been otherwise:

  • comparing different versions of the same event,

  • rewriting texts (adding, deleting, or rephrasing),

  • role-playing.

Strategies to expand readers’ social imagination:

  • imagine why the author made particular choices

  • how someone else might fill in the gaps differently;

  • what the author imagined people would know or think;

  • how someone in a different time or place might think differently;

  • the perspective of someone not represented in the text.

Summarised from Johnston, P. and Rogers, R. (2006:17)

The final strategy suggested here is going to be the starting point for the discussion that follows: considering the perspective of someone not represented in the text. In 1990, Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about how children from ethnic minorities in the US experience literature, describing how texts can be windows, mirrors, or sliding doors: a means of looking out into another world, a reflection of the reader or a means of entering a new way of being. This metaphor provides a way of thinking about how texts relate to the individual child, whether it is because of the colour of their skin, their religion, their looks, their family structure or their own relationships. World of Difference (an American advocacy group) has suggested that ‘when children are represented in literature and other media, they begin to see themselves as valuable and worthy of notice. Conversely when children do not see accurate representations of themselves, they may internalise the message that they are not worthy of notice (in Waugh et al, 2013: 97). What follows, then, is an exploration of aspects of the dominant cultures found in many of the fairy and folk tales that children in the UK are exposed to.

Whose culture?

If we pursue the metaphor of literature as a mirror, we have to ask who does not see themselves in the fairy and folk tales that are shared in the classroom? In the discussion that follows in which I will consider in turn: race and religion, gender and relationships and political power.

Race and Ethnicity

Given European history, it is hardly startling to suggest that, even in an era of mass migration, the dominant culture of Europe can be characterised as white and Christian. Although there are excellent classroom resources (both print and online) highlighting traditional stories from other cultures, the European folk tradition remains the most visible here in the UK. This is not intended to be a value-statement, but rather to simply state what is.

There are a few stories in the European tradition which include either non-white or non-Christian characters, but even the simplest critical reading of them would suggest that they do not represent inclusivity. Take ‘The Jew in the Brambles’ (Tatar, 2004) for instance. In this a story from the Grimm’s collection, an elderly Jewish man ends up being pushed into the thorn bush of the title at the amusement of a group of young men and, while now it may only appear in study collections of the Grimms’ stories (such as Tatar’s (2004) ‘The Annotated Brothers Grimm’), it appeared in a volume intended for young readers published by the brothers themselves. Again, from the Grimm Brothers, the title character in ‘Hans my Hedgehog’ becomes acceptable as a husband by scrubbing his dark skin in an attempt to make it white. It is unsurprising that ‘Hans my Hedgehog (which is one of my favourite of Grimms’ tales) is edited to remove the offending racist overtones such as in the beautifully realised 1987 version from the Henson company as part of the series The Storyteller (available at the time of writing on the Daily Motion website CLICK HERE).

Finding published fairy tales in which different racial identities are represented has become a little easier in recent years. Books such as ‘Power to the Princess’ by Ethan Murrow, with illustrations by Julia Bereciartu (which will also appear in the discussion around gender below), is clear in its inclusive agenda, with leading characters of colour throughout. Whilst the overt aim of this book is to challenge stereotypes, there are also versions of fairy tales which such a challenge is almost incidental. Jerry Pinkney’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood‘is instantly recognisable as belonging to mainstream versions of the tale except that the child and her grandmother are pictured as African Americans. Having discovered Pinkney’s book many years ago, I was excited to then find a reversible toy figure of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother with black skin (see figure 1). This may seem trivial at first glance, but imagine the impact on a child of colour to not only have the picturebook as a mirror of their racial identity, but also toys with which s/he can recreate the story. When discussing issues of inclusion such as this, it is easy to be theoretical and become separated from the real impact that making conscious choices with resources can have. And this includes working at university level. I was recently giving a seminar on children’s picturebooks, and placed representative groups of texts (including Pinkney’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’) on the students’ tables. During the discussions, one of the students commented that she had never seen herself in fairy tales before, and that this book had enabled her to relate to the text in a way that she previously never had.

Film versions of fairy tales have also become more inclusive. Since the dark days of ‘Song of the South’ (1946), which is notorious for its negative racial stereotypes, Disney has made significant efforts (certainly over the last decade) in the way that different ethnic groups are represented. In its 2009 animated film of ’The Princess and the Frog’, the main character is a woman of colour, and the main parts in the 2019 live action version of ‘Aladdin’ are taken by people of near Eastern or Asian heritage (see Erum Salam’s article of 24/5/19 in The Guardian CLICK HERE).

So far, I have been referring to stories that we identify as European, but it needs to be remembered that these are in no sense ‘the original’ versions (as is often suggested to me), but rather variations of tales that are found all over the world. Hence, while it is certainly valuable to make use of traditional European tales in which the illustrations are inclusive, there is as much value in exploring traditional tales from other cultures, and exploring the similarities and differences between them. In each of Figures 2 and 3, I have highlighted two picturebooks of stories from non-European cultures which are closely related to their European variants. So, we have ‘Yeh-Shen’ (from China) and ‘Cinderella of the Nile’ (which is otherwise known as ‘Rhadopis’, and is from ancient Egypt) both of which predate the European version of Cinderella. As variants of the story known in Europe as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ we have ‘Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters’ (from sub-Saharan Africa) and ‘The Dragon Prince’ (from China).

In addition, in each panel I have included two collections of multi-cultural variants of well-known tales. The ‘Stories from around the world’ series is relatively recent (published within the last seven years) while the ‘Oryx Multicultural Folktales’ series was published in the 1990s; the volumes are, however, easily obtained from second-hand online bookshops.

Of course, the internet is also rich source of comparative texts, and I have already collated a list of helpful websites: CLICK HERE.

When stories are told rather than read in illustrated texts , or viewed on screen, ethnicity is not as obvious and, unless it is a story in which skin colour is integral to the plot (such as ‘Snow White’ or, as already mentioned, ‘Hans my Hedgehog’) there is an open space in which anyone can identify to a certain extent with the characters. I say ‘to a certain extent’ because if you have grown up having never seen images of a person of colour in the role of king or queen, why would

you associate such roles with anyone other than someone who is white. However, it is incumbent on the storyteller, as opposed to the story reader, to make sure that the spaces in the narrative stay open, and so avoid limiting, for example, princesses to girls of golden hair and pale complexions. And ensure that children are exposed to material that challenge racial and ethnic stereotypes in all aspects of life; this can then be drawn on when children create mental images of the stories that they hear, so that the story can be a window, yes, but also has the potential to be a sliding door.


In what is arguably a predominantly secular culture like the UK, it would be easy to think that there is little need to address issues of religious inclusion in how we use traditional stories in the classroom. However, religion remains an important part of many people’s lives, and the traditional stories that we share have their roots in societies that were much more religiously observant than our own. Paying attention to religion in texts such as fairy stories, then, is an essential part of a critical approach to literacy.

Returning to Johnston and Rogers’ (2006) strategies for developing critical literacy, it is worth highlighting some of these in relation to religious inclusion:

  • Imagine why the author made particular choices When we share a story with children, we are sharing something that is composed of specific language and (in a live reading or telling) gestures and vocal tones etc. Each of these components is deliberately chosen because of the particular interpretations that we (reader/teller and author) give to events, and these interpretations derive from the values that we want to emphasise in the communication of the story. As I have already noted, traditional stories come to us from times that were more bound to religious ideas, and just as European fairy stories are rooted in their Christian inheritance, the Tales of 1001 Nights are in Islamic culture, Indian stories such as those in The Panchatantra in the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. In Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories (which are, admittedly, literary rather than traditional tales), Christianity provides the ground on which the tales are built, and everything in the narratives is turned towards the values that Wilde sees as core to that religion. The works of other story makers may not make religion as explicit as Wilde in the tales that they have shaped but they, themselves, have come out of specific cultures with their own beliefs, values, traditions and vocabulary.

  • How someone else might fill in the gaps differently This question is fundamental when taking a critical approach to narrative, and it demands understanding that the choices that are made as a story is composed are not inevitable, and that specific characteristics and particular values are highlighted by the author/teller through the actions of the characters that populate a narrative. However, some stories, and their characters and events, have a community significance that makes sensitivity essential when working with them, and even well-known academics can sometimes seem to demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to religion, and the difference in status between myth and fairy tale:

[the teacher] wanted to introduce her Year 1 class to fairy tales from around the world. She chose the Rama and Sita story from India and Cinderella from Europe. The class discussed the fact that they both had elements common to many fairy tales, including a magical element, animals and talking mirrors, and people being transformed. There was also the element of the main character being the youngest of sisters and being beautiful and caring. (Waugh et al, 2013: 101)

While the comparison between the stories of ‘Rama and Sita and ‘Cinderella’ is an interesting one, it is not a comparison within a single genre. While ‘Cinderella’ is certainly what we would call a fairy tale, the story of Rama and Sita is part of a people’s living mythology. Leeming and Leeming define myth as ‘a narrative projection of a given cultural group's relationship with the deeper powers of the surrounding world and universe. They continue, ‘A myth is a projection of an aspect of a culture's soul. In its complex but revealing symbolism, a myth is to a culture what a dream is to an individual’ (1994: vii). Some would argue that ‘Cinderella’ has itself entered the realm of mythology, and Zipes (1994) argues that established fairy stories have gone through a process of what he refers to as ‘mythologization’, in that they have become means of communicating value across cultures. But while the European ‘Cinderella’ (in its variants) is known across the world thanks to the Disney corporation, and fulfils Bruner’s description of ‘the coin and currency of culture’ (2002), it doesn’t provide a focal point for a community, nor is it regarded as being of divine origin.

Religious myths, therefore, need to be handled with care in the classroom. This is particularly true of stories that are foundational for minority communities, but it does also include the stories of Christianity. These can be trivialised because of the way that modern Britain’s Christian identity is (arguably) nominal, and Bible stories have ceased being understood as having the religious value that they hold for people of faith.

  • What the author imagined people would know or think / how someone in a different time or place might think differently Stories composed from particular religious perspectives often assume that the reader/listener has sufficient knowledge to interpret the story. Take for example Shlomo Abas’s retelling of the Yiddish folktale ‘The Sages of Chelm and the Moon’, a book published specifically for Jewish audiences. To ensure that some gaps in knowledge are filled, the publishers provide short notes to explain that some of the humour of the story of how the ‘wise’ men of the village of Chelm went to purchase a moon (because the one that they saw in the sky from their village kept coming and going) is derived from the central role that the lunar calendar has in Judaism. But the story makes reference (without explanation) to the village rabbi, as one who is clearly an important person in the village. There is an implicit assumption here (perhaps not unreasonably) that there would be a more knowledgeable other on hand for the child from a different religious tradition.

To summarise this discussion of religion and traditional stories, then, a critical approach needs to be taken as much as when considering race and ethnicity. Stories can provide mirrors of people’s own faith traditions, or windows into the lives of people from other traditions, even if this is often implicit. Where stories have an explicitly mythic function within a tradition, we need to extend the same sensitivity to them and their status as we would with any other religious artefact that we bring into the classroom.

References for Part 3

  • Abas, S. (2019) The Sages of Chelm and the Moon. Barnsley: Green Bean Books

  • Ai-Ling, L. (1982) Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story. from China. New York NY: Philomel Books

  • Bishop, R. Sims (1990) Mirrors, Windows and Sliding-Doors. Available at (accesed 10/5/20)

  • Bruner, J. (2002) Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

  • Carter, A. (1995, 2006) The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. London: Vintage

  • Cole, B. (1997) Prince Cinders. London: Puffin

  • Cole, B. (1996) Princess Smartypants. London: Puffin

  • De Haan, L. and Nijland, S. (2002) King and King. New York: Tricycle Press.

  • Friere, P (1997 (1970)) Pedagogy of the oppressed (Rev ed) Bergman Ramos, M. New York: Continuum

  • Hearne, B. (1993) The Oryx Multicultural Folklore Series: Beauties and Beasts. Westport CT: Oryx Press

  • The Henson Company (1987) The Storyteller: Episode 5 Hans My Hedgehog (adapted by Anthony Minghella and directed by Steve Barron). Available at (accessed 18-05-20)

  • Hollindale, P. (2011) The Hidden Teacher: Ideology and Children's Reading. Stroud: Thimble Press

  • Johnston, P. and Rogers, R. (2006) Critical Literacy/Critical Teaching: Tools for Preparing Responsive Teachers. Teachers College Press

  • Leeming, D. and Leeming, M. (1994) A Dictionary of Creation Myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press

  • Meister, C. (2014) Cinderella Around the World: 4 Beloved Tales. North Mankato MN: Picture Window Books

  • Meister, C. (2016) Beauty and the Beast: 3 Beloved Tales. North Mankato MN: Picture Window Books

  • Murrow, V (2018) Power to the Princess: 15 Favourite Fairytales. Minneapolis, MN: Frances Lincoln Childrens Books

  • Naidoo,B. (2019) Cinderella of the Nile. London: Tiny Owl Publishing

  • Pinkney, J. (1987) Little Red Riding Hood. New York: Hachette

  • Salam, E. (2019) The fairest of them all? Two cheers for Aladdin's browner Princess Jasmine. The Guardian, 24May 2019. Available at: (Accessed 18/5/20).

  • Sierra, J. (1992) The Oryx Multicultural Folklore Series: Cinderella. Westport CT: Oryx Press

  • Steptoe, J. (1987) Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale London: Puffin

  • Tatar, M (2004) The Annotated Brothers Grimm. New York: W.W. Norton

  • Warner, M. (1994) From The Beast To The Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. London: Vintage

  • Waugh, D., Neaum, S. and Waugh, R. (2013) Children’s Literature in Primary Schools. London: Sage

  • Winston, J. (1998) Drama, narrative and moral education. Abingdon: Routledge Falmer

  • Yep, L (1999) The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty & the Beast Tale. Friday Harbor WA: Turtleback Books

  • Zipes, J. (1995) Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives. Abingdon: Routledge

  • Zipes, J. (1994) Fairy Tales as Myth - Myth as Fairy Tale. University Press of Kentucky

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