Last week a teacher from Michigan asked me a question that I’ve been pondering. Why, when there are so many thousands of different folktales to choose from, are the same stories published over and over again, whether in novel form or in picture book format?
This has been a pet complaint of mine for a long time, but now as I thought it through, I had to change my mind a bit. I still believe we should publish as many vibrant, different folktales from as many cultural perspectives as possible. But I decided it is actually a good thing to keep reissuing new editions of old favorites.
These old favorites get told over and over again for good reasons. They resonate so deeply with us that as parents and teachers we want to make sure our children have the same profound experience as we had. The stories are part of our cultural heritage and literary landscape. In a way they are like some of the traditional foods we love to serve up at holidays, anchoring us within a tradition, within our community and our family. They give us comfort, a sense of belonging and of being held.
The stories also give us an experience that is shared over time and space. A child can talk to a grandparent about Cinderella and know they’re talking about the same thing. It’s not certain that the grandparent has read “Captain Underpants.” So it becomes a shared language with shared metaphors .
And let’s just admit it, these tales endure because they are simply fabulous. You can’t beat the plots. It’s why they keep getting reinvented. They are the genuine classics. If you know them, then you know what a really great story sounds like and you’ll be a better judge of all other literature and a better writer besides.
Folktales have always changed to reflect the moral standards of their times as well as help shape them (read Jack Zipes illuminating The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood for an interesting examination of this topic). They are not meant to be static and fixed. They need to move with the times to stay relevant. It’s in their bones. The updated, re-imagined, retold and re-illustrated versions of the classic fairytales need to reflect changing cultural attitudes such as attitudes towards girls, minorities and other cultures to mention a few. I, for one, am happy to leave out the incestuous parts of some of the Grimm Fairytales.
And if they weren’t constantly reissued, I would have missed out on some fabulous new books. My new favorite is Huff and Puff by Claudia Rueda. This interactive retelling of The Three Little Pigs is so cool. It has holes in it and children can play the part of the wolf by blowing through the holes. Plus there’s a surprise ending. Which, by the way, is only a surprise if the child knows the so-called “original” version.