This morning was book exchange day at my daughter’s nursery school. There isn’t a set day for this. It usually happens when we’ve come to the realisation that we’ve had the last book for a few weeks longer than is socially acceptable, we’ve lost it a couple of times, and now it is getting perilously close to being smeared with Weetabix and snot. So we put it back in its book bag and trundled off to nursery school to swap it for a new one.
As modern books go, I haven’t seen much in them that isn’t okay for my children to consume. The stories are interesting (the first few times at least – they get a bit much after the twentieth recital), the rhymes are fun, the characters are pretty easy to like. And the big plus – they are much more diverse and not at all offensive/sick/macabre.
In contrast, some of the older stories we have at home in my old Treasuries of children’s tales are pretty horrific. The Grimm fairy tales are well known for being, well, grim. But I have noticed a lot of other bad stuff in old stories that I don’t think I ever picked up on as a child, unless you count my completely irrational fear of wolves – I believed wolves would be hiding around most corners in the dark in my house, and I suspect Little Red Riding Hood had a lot to do with that.
I find myself heavily editing these stories when I read them to my children. Does anybody else do that?
I turn the wolves into mean dogs. Hansel and Gretel don’t really get sent into the forest by their parents, they just get lost one day. And they absolutely do not put the witch in the oven. The wolf in Three Little Pigs doesn’t get scolded in a pan of water, he just gets chased away. Beast doesn’t threaten to kill himself if Beauty doesn’t come back, and he doesn’t actually die at the end. He just lies down. Beast is also a handsome man on the inside, in my version, so he doesn’t turn into a massive hunk because Beauty loves him anyway. And my favourite story, The Selfish Giant, although it doesn’t need much editing, always ends with the Giant just falling asleep and not actually dying.
As well as the bad stuff, I’ve also noticed a lot of grim gender stereotyping. Most female characters are either in some sort of domestic role or are waiting to be married off to a Prince. So in my versions, I turn them turn into hugely successful and right-on feminists. Mrs Bear of Three Bears fame? She’s a business woman of course! And she made the porridge in between doing research for her thesis.
In some ways I wonder why I find myself changing the stories. I grew up with them and, apart from the wolf stuff, they didn’t harm me or affect my world view. But for some reason I can’t read the bad stuff to the children because they are so little and I don’t want to be reading about such horrific ends for the characters, or about parental rejection, obsession with beauty and repulsion at unattractiveness. Why would these be good things to put into children’s stories?
Perhaps it is our definition and understanding of childhood that has changed since the ‘long time ago’ when they were written. Now, we have stories about Gruffalos and clever mice, stories about children preparing for new siblings, and stories about toys coming to life. Surely these are better aren’t they? They may not be the classics but they’re fun, engaging and harmless. And hopefully one day they will become for our children’s children the stories they will refer to as classics.