Monday, May 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Tales

I recently overheard an exchange between my three-year-old son and one of my five-year-old daughter's friends, in which he asked her if she was afraid of monsters in her room at night. She replied, "No, because monsters don't exist!" And this may sound strange, but my mama instinct was to go cover his ears and tell him not to listen. Because, especially for little kids, monsters do exist ... those fears are so very real to them, and as much as I love to find the hope and the good in people, as adults they will find that there are actual monsters in the world, too - hateful people, natural disasters, broken hearts and unrealized goals. I feel strongly that one of my jobs as a parent is to help them deal with those monsters head-on. And I believe that one of the best tools I have to teach them while they're young, is to read them fairy tales. Here are two of my favorites.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
~ G. K. Chesterton, writer

That quote appears at the front of a book by one of my very favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, who writes for adults, teens and - hooray! - kids. The Wolves in the Walls is one of my favorite modern dragon-beating stories. Lucy can't convince her family that there are wolves living in the walls of their house until it's too late, and the wolves come out and party: wearing the humans' clothes, playing wolfish songs on her father's tuba, beating her little brother's video game high scores and eating up all her mom's homemade jam, while the family is stuck out in the garden in the cold. The family discusses running away, but in the end Lucy steps up and finds a braver, more effective solution. The story is well-told, and Dave McKean's pictures are amazing. A few other Gaiman favorites for children: The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, and Blueberry Girl.

This book, Brundibar by Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner, was given to me by a friend for my 26th birthday, a year and a half before my first child was born. I have loved it since then, and have loved sharing this story with my kids when they came along. It's based on the opera of the same name, written by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krasa and performed by children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where Krasa was also being held, in 1943. The children in the story are on a mission to get milk for their ill mother, but they have to navigate the world of grown-ups and defeat a bully - but not without the help of their friends! There's a little surprise twist at the very end that I love every single time, and always starts a conversation about not ever giving up. I'm not a student of the opera, but the way this book is written just feels operatic to me, and yet the language is exactly suited for children - I have no doubt that this story was just waiting for Tony Kushner to come along and transform it into a form more accessible to modern children. Maurice Sendak, of course, works his magic with the illustrations. I don't know of any other children's books by Kushner, but here are some of our other Sendak favorites: Chicken Soup With Rice, Alligators All Around, One Was Johnny, and In the Night Kitchen.

Of course, there are many many many other stories that my children and I love to read together, I could seriously go on and on and on ... But that conversation about monsters rekindled something, I think, and I will definitely be on the lookout for other great modern fairy tales. Any suggestions?


  1. So I just came over here after your comment and read this! I should come here more often. So as similar as we are, I am the complete opposite on this topic. One of our kids got the Wolves book from their school library and we read it together and it absolutely terrified me and our kids. We couldn't finish it and returned it the next day. It still gives me shivers to think about it. We have had the monsters talk and I have told them there are no monsters, etc, and it comforted them. So I guess we all parent differently :)

  2. Found your blog thru Steadymom. Love this piece! I have been wondering how to prepare my child for the harsher realities of life, at the same time that I want to protect him and keep him in ignorant bliss of the many horrible things in life for as long as possible. But as well as protecting our children and sparing them for violent impressions while they are little, we must prepare them somehow, so they don't get shocked and depressed when reality inevitably hits them. I think you're onto something by reading your children fairytales! I think that prepares them for life as it is, with good people, and the odd evil person who must be fought.