Friday, January 21, 2011

Celebrating Fairy Tales Retold

Today I visited one of our fourth grade classes for a writing celebration. Each of the students read their retelling of a fairytale in front of an audience of their peers, a few adults from the school, and a few parents. It was truly a festive occasion.

Almost all of these stories were told in the first person from the perspective of a character (often the villain) in the story. Most of the stories began with the character introducing him or herself, and several ended by thanking the audience for listening to "my side of the story." Clearly, the students were familiar with The true story of the Three Little Pigsby Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith.

The students' stories were filled with creative details and many had some interesting twists. They also showed their familiarity with several other fairy tales, an understanding of the difference between a third person narrator and a first person participant, and almost all showed that they understood that a difference in point of view can completely change the interpretation of actions. A few of the students also understood that their first person narrator wasn't necessarily nice or even honest. (Scieszka and Smith make this clear with many little details including the "graffiti" on the back cover.) Obviously this was a successful project that the class enjoyed and worked hard to bring to fruition.

So what is it about fairy tales that lend them so beautifully to being used and twisted in this way and many others? Perhaps it is the voice, or lack thereof of the narrator. The narrator or storyteller tells us the plot fairly briefly with little character development or descriptions of character or setting. Often the characters don't even have names (the king, the queen, the princess, the witch, the wolf...), but even if they are named they have little character. Their character traits are named and assigned to them, (proud, ugly, resourceful, faithful) but you don't really know them. They could be anyone - even you!

The action in a fairy tale can be exciting to the point of brutality. People are cooked, eaten, have their heads cut off, and are forced to accomplish impossible tasks. But then they are often reassembled and married off for the classic "fairy tale ending." So a traditional fairy tale is in some ways a blank story. It is waiting to be re-imagined and populated with real characters. Each reader and listener can dive into these stories, re-live them, and make them their own. They are scary, yet safe. Impersonal and terribly personal. At some point every girl knows that she is Cinderella, and every boy is a prince with a magic blade. The stories belong to all of us. They are unbreakable toys that we can play with as we see fit.

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