Comparative Literature for Kids

imagesOne of the at-home learning activities my kids have been most invested in and most enthusiastic about has been my kid-friendly version of comparative literature: taking one fairy tale and finding as many versions  of it as we can find.  This includes not only looking at different authors’ but also different illustrators’ takes on the standard tales.  Sometimes, we even discover clever retellings of the stories that draw attention to their absurdities.

My kids have loved this approach to fairy tales, and it offers so many points of departure for discussing the stories and how they are told.

  • Is there a reason why the bad guy is a bad guy?
  • Does the story give any motivation?
  • Are the good guys always good?
  • Do girls always have to be princesses?
  • Do boys always have to be the heroes?
  • How does the author change the original story?
  • How does that change the message?
  • Why are so many kids in stories orphans?
  • Why is the forest always scary?
  • Is the animal a helper or an enemy?
  • How would the story be different if an animal told it?
  • Which illustrations do you like best?  Why?
  • How would you change this story?
  • How would you illustrate it?

Including movies in this comp. lit mix gives you a lot more to talk about.  With Maleficent out now, it’s a great time to dig out “Sleeping Beauty” again, both the tales and Disney’s original animated movie.  I loved watching it with my kids and talking about what a difference it makes to tell the story from the antagonist’s point of view.  I loved how they reference Disney’s illustration of Maleficent with those magnificent cheekbones!  I loved how we finally get a motivation for a terribly two-dimensional Disney demon.  The movie gave us so much to talk about in terms of stock characters and how it’s so much more interesting when the story is not just about good vs. evil.

Here’s what has worked for me and my boys.

For kids up to age six, decide on a fairy tale, and go to the library and find as many different illustrated picture book versions as you can.  This worked wonderfully for us with boys of different ages, because each child will spot different things and be attracted to different aspects of the books.

imgres-2For kids from six to ten, go back to the original versions from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang and Hans Christian Andersen.  Some of these are much more creepy and violent than their Disney incarnations!  Some you’ve never heard of.  Philip Pullman recently published his tellings of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, complete with information about the origin and adaptations of the stories and why some have lasted longer than others.

Fairy tales are so elastic, they even lend themselves to including tweens and teens.  If you read the picture books to all the kids, middle grade readers can go off and read books like The Grimm Sisters, or for mature readers, Angela Carter’s retellings in The Bloody Chamber.   For movie adaptations for older kids, there are recent movie version of Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman.

Here are some  other great retellings to share:

  • Philip Pullman retells Cinderella from the point of view of one of the rats who got changed into horses in I Was a Rat.  Funny.
  • The Sisters Grimm series of nine middle-grade novels by Michael Buckley tells the story of two girl detectives in the land of Everafters.  Addictive.
  • A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz is the first of a trilogy that retells the story of Hansel and Gretel for middle grade readers.  Page-turners.
  • Sweetly by Jackson Pearce also retells Hansel and Gretel for young adults.  About to find out….  Just ordered it.

Can you suggest any other retellings?  (Honestly, I’m hopeless.  I’ve added a dozen books to my wish list while writing this post and looking at these lists.  Hennepin County LibraryGoodreadsEpic Reads.  )


Media Literacy Education: A Parent’s Best Tool Against Miley Cyrus and Other Media Madness

children-403582_640I had never heard of Miley Cyrus before preparing for this week’s blog topic.  My niece has a poster of Hannah Montana in her bedroom, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I have thus never heard Miley act, sing or dance, except of course, for her now infamous display at the video awards show.

I don’t tune in much to popular culture, so possibly I am taking a very broad brushstroke when I say that I wasn’t so sure why this one performance attracted so much attention (although I was surprised that within this attention, Miley’s whiteness against her back-up dancers’ blackness went mostly unnoticed – I noticed that quite a bit).  The show was vulgar and lacked artistry, yes, but the outcry around sexualization?  This seems a matter of fairly slight degree.  How is it so much different from other skimpies gyrating onstage?  And didn’t some other girl also put her tongue to good use once with Madonna when she needed to move from teen to adult celebrity?

So I’m assuming the fuss must stem from a populace, or more accurately the parents of that populace, who perceived a role model in Hannah Montana only to see it crushed under Miley’s platformed running shoes at the VMA.  I don’t know what to say about this exactly, except that investing emotionally in a pop star is like seeking guidance from Snow White.  It’s fitting that Hannah Montana aired on the Disney Channel, because the show is probably some kind of modern day fairy tale (but I can’t say for sure because I’ve never watched it).

Just as an informed parent might talk about character portrayal in traditional fairy tales (why are the meanies usually stepmothers?  why are the fathers spineless or absent?  why are the rewarded good girls so passive under tyranny? why is the reward marriage to a prince?), parents might do well to talk about the modern day fantasies that air on television.  Is Hannah Montana real?  What do you think Miley Cyrus is like in real life?  Why is she performing this way?  Is real sex like that?  Why is the sexual focus on Miley and not the man she performed with?  Who are the black dancers on stage and why are they there?

You can avoid most of Miley-type scenes by not just unplugging, but not bothering with television at all.  It’s true, we don’t have one in our house, and it’s wonderful.  But you don’t need to toss the TV to avoid its pitfalls – just talk about it.  Miley gets a lot of attention and has lots of money, but she’s got nothing on a basic media literacy education for children.  If they’ve got this, no one needs to fret when a public display goes one shade darker on the spectrum of distasteful.  The question won’t be “Who is Hannah?” or “Who is Miley?” but rather, “Who cares?”