Thursday, May 18, 2017

Why should I read or tell old folk stories and fairy tales to children?

Reading to children is very important and there is that attribution to Einstein, about the importance of fairy tales. Research has informed me that Rita McDonald wrote an article: “Children’s Reading in the Space Age,” in Montana Libraries, in July 1958.

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

It is almost like Whispers/Telephone! I heard it from the internet, which states Rita McDonald in Montana Libraries heard it from New Mexico Library Bulletin that Elizabeth Margulis said...
This is the story which led to the saying: “If you want a child to be smart, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be smarter, read them more fairy stories.” If Einstein thinks it is important, I am totally on board! And more about this later.

The idea of reading to children is very important for a couple of reasons, more so if English is a second language, but it applies to all of us. One, is that picture books often contain words which are not normally used on a day-to-day basis. To take examples from four books:

Original sketch for Dragon and the Monkey's Heart, Rob Brookes, copyright 2006
 Puss in Boots, by Philip Pullman (ISBN: 0-375-81354-3) 2000
property, monsieur, fortune, impressive, saluted, meadows, astrologer, villains, hermit, marquis, sleeplessness, onward, dungeon
Merlin and the Dragons, by Jane Yolen (ISBN: 0-525-65214-0) 1995
gazed, knowingly, withdrawing, companionship, troubled, predictions, planetary, revolt, emblazoned, Welshmen, banners, consulted, reported, knowledge, emerged
The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, by Neil Gaiman ((ISBN: 0-06-058701-6) 1997
penny whistle, brilliant, swap, splashes, mumf, humf, doorbell, gorilla, escaping, darling, attention, present, caught, butler, whom, ginger beer, tickled, fussed

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
, by Dr. Suess (ISBN: 90129-80527-8) 1990
congratulations, steer, direction, decide, frequently, fliers, sights, slump, unpleasant, magical, scare, hither, creek, prowl, dexterous, deft
These are just a few words taken from part of the books, apart from Dr. Suess' Oh, The Places... which I went all the way through as it is one of my favourites. Now I admit, some of these we do use, but not usually on a daily basis. Seeing these words in books on a regular basis (you know how children love to hear the same story over and over again) puts them in context and makes it easier to spell the words, or recognize them when they see them later. Reading any children’s book will therefore increase vocabulary. 
The other reason to read (or tell a story) is to sit down, turn off the phone and to remove any distractions (like the television). Reading or telling tales to someone provides intimate one-on-one time, creating a strong and lasting bond. Distraction free one-on-one time with children in this day and age is rare indeed. Sharing folk and fairy tales can also provoke meaningful conversations and discussions. When these children grow up, no matter what happens to them, they will have this special bond, and memories of time spent with loved ones. And if you are reading Grimm to anyone, it provides an ample supply of topics on all sorts of subject matter!
Elves and the Shoe Makers
Should you read all of Grimm’s stories to young children? Some of them, yes. Although obviously there are some which are not for young ears. There are some wonderful stories collected by the Grimm Brothers, and most, if not all, end with hope. There isviolence in these stories, and some dreadful things which happen, but nothing a child has not seen on the evening news, or heard on the radio or playground at recess. The thing with these stories, is that there is hope (which is rarely given on the news). And when we are surrounded by doom and gloom, hope is a big thing, not just for a child, but for adults, too. Children who have issues at home, or at school, such as bullying, or abuse, which may feel are insurmountable, can find hope and support in some tales, and will find escapism and laughter in others.
These stories are needed now more than ever. If we were to take Hansel and Gretel, for example, this is a story where the children are abandoned in the woods by their parents, and have to survive the encounter of a predator – the witch - on their own. At the time (in history) of when this story takes place, abandonment was a very real threat if a family was on the brink of starvation. Small children and elders were left in the woods to ‘fend for themselves.’ Although these reasons are no longer valid, children can feel they are being abandoned, no matter how well it is dealt with, when parents get divorced, or have to travel a lot. Sadly there are families where a parent gets imprisoned, or parents are just too busy for their children. Little Red Riding Hood can help young children process events they might hear on the news about predators*. There are many ways tales can help, as well as entertain. 
As tools to understand the world around us, the old stories are as relevant today as when they were first told. And a good majority of the ancient, dark stories should be read to young people, and discussed. Just because a book is for children, does not mean only children should read them! I never stopped buying children’s books or getting them from the library and reading them, and I doubt I will. Read to your children, your grandchildren, your wards, and tell the gritty Grimm stories! They’ll become favourites.
Artwork by Rob Brooks, copyright 2017. For the cover of Under the Oaken Bough
by Simon Brooks, copyright 2017
The above text was taken and modified from parts of my forthcoming collection of retold folk and fairy tales, Under the Oaken Bough. Due out in November 2017
*See my article on LinkedIn – The Old Tales, and Personal Stories
For more of Rob's artwork, or to commission his work, visit his website:

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