10 Lesser-Known Fairy Tales That Should Get More Love


Uncle Wolf

The “little glutton” who travels through the woods in Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales carries a basket filled with pancakes, bread, and wine for Uncle Wolf. The path is long, and the girl can’t resist the goodies. She replaces the pancakes with donkey manure, the loaf of bread with lime from a stonemason, and the wine with dirty water. Uncle Wolf is outraged by the deception, and the girl races back home, hiding in a corner of her bed. No fool, Uncle Wolf chases her down and declares, “Ahem, here I go!” After all, he has a reputation to defend. An expert at doing away with “greedy little girls,” he swallows the child whole. Calvino admires the primal quality of the story, a favorite all over Italy, and praises “rudimentary elements” such as “gluttony, excrement, and a steady intensification of terror.”

There are several versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” in Italian Folktales, and in the notes Calvino appears to be compulsively fiddling with a story that none of his sources seem to get just right. The tale about a girl and a wolf stages an encounter between innocent prey and fanged predator, and today the girl almost always emerges triumphantly from the belly of the wolf. But in many versions — most famously in Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” — she is never disgorged. The wolf snaps his jaws, swallows the girl whole — end of story (save for an occasional moral about the perils of talking to strangers and straying from the path). The consuming idea in most variants is innocence versus seduction, but “Uncle Wolf” turns Red Riding Hood from a pretty child, adored by everyone (as the Grimms tell us), into a girl who is both greedy and lazy. While the other girls at her school are knitting, she has the audacity to go to the privy and fall asleep–a truly deserving victim, especially in light of her other transgressions, which include a love of pancakes.

Italo Calvino, “Uncle Wolf,” in Italian Folktales, trans. George Martin (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956), pp. 152-54.


Remember Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach? Or the Japanese folktale about Momotaro, the Peach Boy who battles monstrous creatures on a distant island? Who knew that Sendak and Dahl may have plundered Japanese folklore to construct their stories about boys who set sail in search of adventure? We will never know why Dahl changed his title from James and the Giant Cherry and gave James Trotter a “great big beautiful peach” to navigate the waters, and there are no doubt multiple sources for Sendak’s Wild Things (the “Jewish relatives” disguised as horses until an editor pointed out that the artist was not very good at drawing them). Both authors might have fallen under the spell of the celebrated Japanese story about a boy who floats down the river in a peach and is adopted by a childless couple. Momotaro (his name derives from momo, or peach, and taro, or eldest son) grows up and sails to an island, where he meets a talking dog, monkey, and pheasant, all of whom become his sidekicks and allies. Collectively they slay demons known as Oni, and return home triumphantly, laden with treasures.

Momotaro has always been a popular figure in Japan, and during World War II he became an intrepid warrior, fighting military demons. In a 1944 feature-length animated film called Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, the boy grows up to be a general and teams up with a bear, monkey, dog, and pheasant, all of whom have become high-ranking officials. Together they invade an island and liberate it from British rule. The film ends with children playing at parachuting onto a map of the continental United States.

Read more here.

Sun, Moon, and Talia (Sleeping Beauty)

Some years ago, feminists did their best to make the story of Sleeping Beauty go away. In books with titles such as Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-Bye and Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty, they fretted that fairy-tale women are doomed to passivity, silence, sleep, always playing the waiting game. Unlike Bruno Bettelheim, who saw in the story a parable of puberty and recommended the tale as therapeutic bedtime reading for girls, they condemned the cult of the beautiful, dead woman promoted by the tale.

Imagine the outrage had these critics discovered “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” a version of “Sleeping Beauty” in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, a Neapolitan collection of tales published in 1634. Basile’s Talia falls into a deep sleep when a piece of flax slides under her nail. One day, a king discovers a comatose princess sleeping on a velvet throne in a secluded mansion. One look at the young woman, and his blood begins to “course hotly through his veins.” He takes her to the bedroom and picks “the fruits of love.” After returning home — to his wife — he becomes so immersed in the business of running his kingdom that he forgets all about Talia who, in the meantime, has given birth to twins. When the king is finally ready for a repeat visit, he reveals that he is the father of the twins. How does Talia react? The two “make friends” and establish “a strong bond.” Enter the queen, who is less forgiving and so consumed by envy that she orders Talia’s children slaughtered and served up to her husband for dinner (a compassionate cook substitutes lambs for the boy and girl). Her plan to burn Talia at the stake backfires, and she herself becomes the victim of the flames. Basile adds a disconcerting moral: “For those who are lucky, good rains down even when they are sleeping.”

Is it any surprise that the Brothers Grimm changed the rape to a chaste kiss and replaced the married king with a bachelor prince in their more child-friendly collection of fairy tales? Today, Sleeping Beauty continues to haunt our cultural imagination — it will not go away — with philosophers meditating on the Sleeping Beauty Problem, filmmakers probing motivation in productions like Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty and Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, and celebrities like Lady Gaga reenacting a 24-version of Beauty’s sleep in a bid to sell perfume. Sleeping Beauty may wake up to the perils of mortality, but her story retains a perverse vitality.

“Sun, Moon, and Talia,” in Giambattista Basile, The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones, trans. Nancy L. Canepa (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007), pp. 413-17.

The Singing Tortoise

There are many variants of this African tale about a hunter (known as Ama in some versions) who learns harsh lessons about beauty, art, and sustainability at a time when environmental concerns were not of less burning cultural relevance. “Humans violate nature; nature does not impose itself on them” is the constant refrain in a story about a tortoise with a voice so enchanting that the man who hears it takes the creature home with him. Removing the tortoise from its natural surroundings was already a violation; revealing its secret becomes a profound betrayal. Unable to resist the impulse to broadcast the wonders of the tortoise’s song (and what else is that but the storytelling instinct?), the hunter’s report is received with deep skepticism. And the tortoise, in an act of controlled passive-aggressive behavior, refuses to sing on command. Branded a liar who misrepresents, talks nonsense, and tells “fantastic tales,” Ama is publicly shamed by the chief.

Central to “The Singing Tortoise” is the cult of beauty, with a tortoise that sings with a human voice and plays a small piano-like instrument known as a sansa but also feels freed of the obligation to court an audience. Humans have an obligation to protect that self-contained, natural beauty. Advertising its allure is condemned in a story that can be seen as an exercise in the very same activity of telling in which Ama engaged. The story captures paradoxes about concealment and revelation in the image of the tortoise, which can open up to the world but also withdraw into its shell. Many African tales have an emphatically self-reflexive quality, one that often challenges us to think about the power of story in general as well as to decode narrative mysteries.

“The Singing Tortoise,” in The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories, ed. Harold Courlander and George Herzog (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1947), pp. 65-71.

Vasilisa the Fair

The Russian answer to the Brothers Grimm, Alexander Afanasev collected hundreds of folktales, among them a hybrid of “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel.” An orphaned eight-year-old girl is persecuted at home by her stepmother and stepsisters; in the woods, she is exposed to the threats of an ogress eager to turn her into her next meal. On the orders of her stepmother to secure fire from Baba Yaga, Vasilisa makes the trek out to her hut in the woods. What does she see there? “The fence around it was made of human bones. Skulls with empty eye sockets stared down from the posts. The gate was made from the bones of human legs; the bolts were made from human hands, and the lock was a jaw with sharp teeth.” With the help of a doll bequeathed to her by her mother, Vasilisa carries out household chores — sweeping, cleaning, cooking, washing, and sorting grains. She becomes a consummate spinner and seamstress, who wins the heart of the tsar with her beautiful fabrics and handicraft.

Vasilisa’s story traces an odyssey from rags to riches, but it also turns the girl into a cultural heroine who brings light, in the form of fire, back home. Three magnificent steeds also gallop through the story, sending an apocalyptic shudder through the woods and frightening Vasilisa out of her wits, with each horse and rider a different color (white, red, and black) to match the times of day at which Vasilisa sees them (dawn, high noon, and night). Fairy tales like “Vasilisa the Fair” are syncretic, constructed by borrowing tropes and motifs, along with bits and pieces of plot, not only from the cultural surround in which the tale is told but also from other tales, legends, and myths.

“Vasilisa the Fair,” in Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ed. Maria Tatar (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 172-85.

The Juniper Tree

The raw energy of “The Juniper Tree” has fascinated writers ranging from P.L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame to J.R.R. Tolkien. Both fell under the spell of the tale, rhapsodized about the story’s “exquisite and tragic beginning” and its combination of “beauty and horror.” How does it begin? A mother dies in childbirth. Her husband remarries, and the new wife is determined to do away with her stepson. She lures him to his death by offering him an apple from a chest, and then, bam! She slams the lid down “so hard that the boy’s head flew off and fell into the chest with the apples.” To get rid of the evidence, she chops the boy up into little pieces and cooks him up in a stew, served to the boy’s father, who can’t get enough of the “tasty” dish.

Is there a way to engineer a “happily ever after” after the uncompromising brutality of these opening scenes of carnage? Folklorists know the tale as “My Mother Slew Me; My Father Ate Me,” and a recent anthology of reimagined fairy tales uses that identifying label as its title. Can there by redemption after the slaughter of an innocent and a meal with all the mythical horrors of the one prepared by Atreus? The boy, buried under a juniper tree, comes back to life as a bird, with red and green feathers, eyes that sparkle like stars, and a band of pure gold around its neck. Its rainbow beauty and alluring song fill the world with sparkling sunshine and aromatic wonders. But this bird is also out for revenge, and it exchanges a song for a millstone, using it to crush the stepmother, then returning to human form and sitting down for dinner with father and sister.

“The Juniper Tree,” in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. Maria Tatar (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), pp. 214-29.

The Enchanted Quill

“Pull one of my feathers out, and if you use it to write down a wish, the wish will come true, ” a crow tells the youngest of three sisters in Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s “The Enchanted Quill.” The girl reluctantly plucks the feather, uses it as a pen, and what does she do first but write down the names of the very finest dishes. The food promptly appears in bowls that sparkle and glow. This microdrama packs wisdom about fairy tales into a small golden nugget. Wish fulfillment often takes the form of enough food to eat, and in this case it means that the heroine, who lacks culinary skills and burns all the dishes she tries to prepare, will no longer be the target of ridicule. In fairy tales, the highest good, whatever it may be, is always bathed in an aura of golden light, luminous and radiant, yet also contained or framed with metallic substantiality. And finally, in a self-reflexive gesture, the crow’s magical writing instrument reveals the power of words to build fairy-tale worlds, sites that move us out from reality and enable us to feel the power of what-if in ways that are palpably real. You can almost see and smell the dishes, even if you can’t necessarily touch and taste them. With the magic quill, an instrument that signals the power of the pen, the youngest of the three sisters in the tale succeeds in duping a trio of would-be suitors and inflicting bodily punishments on them and the monarchs in the tale.

Closely related to “Cupid and Psyche,” as well as to “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” in addition to Beauty and the Beast tales, this story gives us a beast less ferocious and slimy than the frogs, goats, dragons, dogs, and chimeras found in many tales.

Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, The Turnip Princess, ed. Erika Eichenseer, trans. Maria Tatar (New York: Penguin, 2015), pp. TK.


Lulu Young, a 25-old African-American woman living in North Carolina, sat down with the folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons about a century ago and told her the story of Bluebeard. A few decades later, Richard Wright would report the transformative childhood experience of having “Bluebeard and His Seven Wives” read to him by a boarder on the front porch: “Enchanted and enthralled, I stopped her constantly to ask for details. My imagination blazed.” Wright felt alive, inventive, inquisitive, and inspired in ways that he had never felt in real life. Never mind the content of the story, with its portrait of a marriage haunted by the threat of murder. It is astonishing that a story we are accustomed to think of as European (the Frenchman Charles Perrault was the first to write it down in 1697) circulated orally in the deep South.

Lulu Young’s Bluebeard tale takes up all the key tropes of the story in its many cultural variations: a forbidden chamber, a curious wife, and a husband who tests his wife’s “obedience” by giving her the key to the locked room. Presto! the forbidden chamber turns into a blood-spattered chamber, filled with the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives, in this case all sisters. Wife number seven summons her seven brothers, “jus’ as he went to kill her.” In most versions Bluebeard is slain by the heroine’s brothers, but Lulu Young’s version ends like this: “An’ he ran away into the woods, an’ never been seen since.”

Elsie Clews Parsons, “Tales from Guilford County, North Carolina,” Journal of American Folklore, 30 (1917): 183.

The Nightingale

Hans Christian Andersen’s story begins with the description of a palace, “the most magnificent in the world,” that belongs to the Emperor of China. The Emperor, an erudite man with exquisite aesthetic sensibilities, reads about nightingales and secures one for himself. The bird has a voice so “lovely” that its music goes straight to his heart. One day a large package arrives with the word “Nightingale” written on it. Inside it is a mechanical bird, covered with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. The bird’s song is “very close to the real thing,” but it fails the emperor when he is ill, for he is unable to wind it up. Enter Death, and the dreadful silence in the emperor’s chambers is broken by a nightingale — the living one — who sings the ruler back to health.

A tale that reveals Andersen’s deep commitment to natural beauty over the artful and artificial and that takes up the nature/culture divide, “The Nightingale” also challenges us to consider what separates us from machines. The modesty, generosity, and passion of true art produced by those devoted to their craft contrasts sharply with the empty pleasures of technological wonders that can do little but engage in vacuous mimicry. Andersen may also have been writing about his own literary voice. His friends called him the “nightingale from Fyn,” and he once referred to himself as a male Jenny Lind (“her voice stays with me forever,” he wrote about the woman known throughout Europe as the “Swedish nightingale”). And what genre is less artificial and lacking in artifice than the fairy tale, a spontaneous expression of human desires and fears?

Hans Christian Andersen, “The Nightingale,” in The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), pp. 78-98.

Yeh-hsien, the Chinese Cinderella

Cinderella lives happily ever after in nearly every version of her story, but her stepsisters rarely fare well. Who can forget the final scenes of the Grimms’ “Cinderella,” with the stepsisters cutting off toes, then heels, to make the dainty shoe fit. Doves peck out the eyes of those same young women as they enter and exit the church where Cinderella weds. An Indonesian Cinderella forces her stepsister into a cauldron of boiling water, then has the body cut up, pickled, and sent to the girl’s mother as “salt meat” for her next meal. A Japanese stepsister is dragged around in a basket, hits a deep ditch, and tumbles to her death. In “Yeh-hsien,” recorded by a scribe in the 9th century, the stepmother and her daughter are stoned to death. Their burial site, called “The Tomb of the Distressed Women,” becomes a shrine for courtship rituals.

Yeh-hsien, who is described as both “intelligent” and “clever,” is befriended by a magical golden fish. The stepmother kills it, but the girl recovers the bones, and they provide her with everything from food and drink to a cloak of feathers and tiny golden slippers that make her look like a “heavenly being.” Rushing home from the ball, Yeh-hsien loses a slipper, which is sold to a warlord who tracks her down and makes her his “chief wife.”

Yeh-hsien is only one of many Chinese Cinderellas. As in every culture, there are thousands of variants of this rag-to-riches stories, some less obvious than others. The sociologist Wolfram Eberhard published a book of Chinese fairy tales in the 1960s. In that collection was “Beauty and Pock Face,” a Cinderella story in which Beauty loses her mother, who returns to life as a yellow cow slaughtered by Beauty’s stepmother. Beauty keeps the bones in a jar, and when she shatters the jar in a fit of rage, a horse, a dress, and a lovely pair of shoes materialize. She loses one of the shoes at a local festival, and marries the man who retrieves it — a man of erudition. This class-conscious Cinderella earlier refused the advances of a fishmonger, a merchant, and an oil trader. Pock Face tries to usurp her stepsister’s role, but in the end, Beauty triumphs after a contest in which both young women have to walk on eggs, climb a ladder of knives, and jump into boiling oil. The stepsister perishes in the last of the contests; Beauty triumphs and sends Pock Face’s body back to the stepmother.

“Yeh-hsien,” in The Classic Fairy Tales, ed. Maria Tatar (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), pp. 107-8.

Fifty Shades of Grey as a Fairy Tale?











From the New York Times:   

Indeed, when Ms. Taylor-Johnson read “Fifty Shades” for the first time, she did not see it as “mommy porn,” as some have called it, nor as an unlikely story full of clunky prose bogged down by a strangely chirpy narrator prone to referring to her “inner goddess,” as some reviewers have complained. Instead, she read it as “a deep, dark, romantic adult fairy tale,” she said. “I thought, I haven’t seen anything cinematically like what I was reading for a long time, if at all,” Ms. Taylor-Johnson continued. “It felt like a very deep romance and a love story the likes of which felt quite unique.”


Marina Warner links Fifty Shades of Grey to the Bluebeard story, but a version of the story in which revenge “eludes the protagonist . . . and the female author chooses to let Bluebeard have his way.”

In Secrets beyond the Doora book I wrote many years ago about the story of Bluebeard and his wives, I focused on the charismatic appeal of the Bluebeard figure, a man who is wealthy, mysterious, sexually seductive . . . controlling and violent.   The Bluebeard story “begins on the outside–in the realm of the familiar, common, and quotidian–and moves to the inside–the exotic, dangerous, passionate, and barbaric.”  What I discovered in the course of my research is that Bluebeard is one of those stories that will not go away, it ferociously repeats itself, as if it were entirely new.  Fifty Shades of Grey is the latest cultural inflection, and now I have my work cut out for me: reading the trilogy and watching the movie, then making a contribution to a shelter for victims of domestic abuse.


Underestimating Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder age twenty-seven.In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek, Pa heads to town promising to return by nightfall, but a terrible storm blows through, and hefinds himself trapped in a snow bank for three days. To survive, he eats the candy he brought for the girls’ Christmas stockings. 

It’s a tale of pluck and miscalculation not lost on the publishers of Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s new annotated autobiography. Last November, they found themselves trapped in a snowbank of preorders for the book, which they won’t dig their way out of until March. They didn’t have to eat the Christmas peppermints, but they did leave Wilder fans crying in their homespun handkerchiefs when the book didn’t arrive in time for the holidays.

The size of the initial print run might seem ridiculously small, considering that Wilder’s Little House books have sold more than 60 million copies. “But you have to understand—this is an academic book,” says Koupal. Pre-Pioneer Girl, the press’s best-seller was the children’s book Tatanka and the Lakota People: A Creation Story, which sold around 15,000 copies.*

 “We felt we were taking a huge risk even to do [15,000].”


“You are a children’s literature fanatic.”

Who knew?


Lena Dunham on Eloise:

“I think so many young women were obsessed with Eloise’s unruly magic,” she said. “She’s just such a remarkably independent, vanity-free, complex little girl, and as a little girl you don’t see that many representations of yourself beyond a good little child with pigtails. So it was meaningful.”

“The tattoo is what caused Hilary Knight to make contact with me,” said the actress/director/author/producer. Having heard there was an up-and-coming TV star with a tattoo of his work, “he sent me a letter, which is very old-school, and some signed books, which, obviously, for an Eloise fanatic is a huge deal.”

Dunham said that after striking up a friendship with the 88-year-old New Yorker, she “very quickly realized that he had a very unique story that needed to be told and that (her friend Matt Wolf, who directed the film) was the person to tell it.”

“It’s Me, Hilary” was accepted into the Sundance festival’s documentary-shorts category and will air on HBO.Eloise-Book-Signing

Aimee Bender Reviews Marina Warner’s ONCE UPON A TIME



This is the challenge and excitement of writing anything comprehensive about such stories: More than any other genre, fairy tales travel and transform — they are rewritten, remade, recollected and retold. Warner has been studying them for decades, across continents and millenniums, and she tracks their evolution with relish.

The chapters are well organized, covering historical documentation, feminism, psychoanalysis, the impact of illustration, film, and more, though at times the subheadings feel arbitrary or narrow, unable to contain the roaming feel of Warner’s prose. A writer who describes how stories “migrate on soft feet, for borders are invisible to them, no matter how ferociously they are policed by cultural purists” has some of that same quality herself, and besides the wealth of information here, the strongest readerly pleasures are her associations with and riffs on the many, many things fairy tales touch.

A good day for fairy tales!


Three Little Pigs Now Off Limits?


imagesJim Naughtie – whose writer wife Eleanor Updale is in talks with Oxford University Press (OUP) over an educational book series – said: ‘I’ve got a letter here that was sent out by OUP to an author doing something for young people. 

‘Among the things prohibited in the text that was commissioned by OUP was the following: Pigs plus sausages, or anything else which could be perceived as pork.

‘Now, if a respectable publisher, tied to an academic institution, is saying you’ve got to write a book in which you cannot mention pigs because some people might be offended, it’s just ludicrous. It is just a joke.’

Muslim Labour MP Khalid Mahmood said: ‘I absolutely agree. That’s absolute utter nonsense. And when people go too far, that brings the whole discussion into disrepute.’ 

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2908910/Oxford-University-Press-bans-sausages-pigs-children-s-books-avoid-offending-Jews-Muslims.html#ixzz3OtwKNeuW
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A spokesman for OUP said: “OUP’s commitment to its mission of academic and educational excellence is absolute.

“Our materials are sold in nearly 200 countries, and as such, and without compromising our commitment in any way, we encourage some authors of educational materials respectfully to consider cultural differences and sensitivities.”

“Into the Woods” Reviewed by Jerry Griswold


Last week, Sunsedownloadt Boulevard’s largest billboard featured Meryl Streep at her scariest, and the oversize image inspired me to see Into the Woods as soon as possible.  Imagine the shock of realizing that the reviewers had been way too kind.


Vanity Fair had what seemed like a more honest assessment.


While the film respectably keeps some of the original show’s darkness, it skimps on the Witch’s character arc and so Streep simply vanishes toward the end of the film, not getting to deliver the Witch’s true gut punch of a song. I also don’t like the way she’s costumed—her glam second-act makeover has her looking like Madame Morrible’s blue sister, not the sudden seductress she’s supposed to be.

But these are quibbles next to the film’s harder to define central problem, which is that there simply is so little heat or passion to be found anywhere. Marshall has m ade a technically assured film that does the difficult work of taking Sondheim’s tricky music out of its original context. But it rarely feels imaginative. It’s cautious and reserved, cramped where the stage show, when done right (and, honestly, even when not done right), is expansive. After all this is a show that’s all about life, the experience of being alive, the lessons and trials and journeys and setbacks. All that elemental, universal stuff, shrewdly molded into tweaks of familiar fairy tales. It’s an ingenious show, and a profound one. But in film form, in this particular film form anyway, the story is small and inert, it’s too specifically about these people, when really the show is supposed to be about all of us. That problem is owed partly to the film’s rushed pacing and too-stringent edits, but there’s something more ineffable going wrong here, too. There’s no genuine heart beating at the center of the film. It’s a dutiful but perfunctory adaptation, sapped of vim and spirit.

Jerry Griswold has weighed in on the film, and I’m thrilled to present his work here.

Who is Disney’s “Into the Woods” For?

By Jerry Griswold

For their musical “Into the Woods,” which premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 1986, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine seemed to draw primarily on two then popular books about fairy tales. Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” took these childhood stories seriously, analyzed and linked them in a psychological manner, and won a National Book Award in 1976. Ann Sexton’s “Transformations” (1971), on the other hand, was a collection of comic poems where she retold the fairy tales in adult and cynical ways. Her poem about “Cinderella,” for example, ends on this note of sarcasm:

Cinderella and the prince

lived, they say, happily ever after,

like two dolls in a museum case

never bothered by diapers or dust,

never arguing over the timing of an egg,

never telling the same story twice,

never getting a middle-aged spread,

their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.

Regular Bobbsey Twins.

That story.

When I saw the musical on stage in the 1980s, I liked the first act but not the second. Critics agreed. Something changed after the intermission. Act I is a wonderfully clever mash-up that links the fairy tales (primarily “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Cinderella”) and behind which you can sometimes detect knowing nods to Bettelheim. Act II, however, is “dark” and meant to undeceive those who believe in “happy endings.” We learn that loved ones often die, cruelty is rampant, orphans abound, people cheat in their marriages, princes can be jerks, and so forth. In this you can hear Sexton’s voice.

Disney’s new film version of “Into the Woods,” directed by Rob Marshall, is largely faithful to the eclectic musical by Sondheim and Lapine. Moreover, this Whitman Sampler of fairy tales is brought to you by a sizable ensemble–including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, James Corden, and Chris Pine. All over the place, the movie’s very fecundity suggests how difficult it is to identify the intended audience for what might be described as a galloping musical fantasy crossover comedy-drama film.

It is rated PG. But kids watching the film in my local theater seemed dampened by the mopey second half. They laughed at the cleverness of the first act, as well known storybook characters crossed into each other’s stories and interacted; still, it should be said that when it comes to clever fairy-tale mash-ups, “Shrek” does it better. But as for the second act’s dreary sharing of existential facts (regarding mortality, adultery, etc.), all in the name of growing-up and becoming undeceived, well, kids aren’t big on Weltschmerz. And that’s because, as James Barrie complained in “Peter Pan,” the young are gay and heartless.

But, alas, making kids’ stories “dark” seems de rigueur these days. While the original fairy tales are violent and contain the supernatural, they weren’t meant to be categorized as “Gothic”; it’s only in recent years that they have been Twilight-ed and pitched to brooding teens. But it’s not just fairy tales that have been “darkened.” Consider the difference between Disney’s original “Alice in Wonderland” and Tim Burton’s creepy version. Or Spike Jonze’s film “Where the Wild Things Are” which took Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book and turned it not into a children’s film but “a film about childhood” by replaying Jonze’s own feelings about growing up as a child of divorce and resulting in a movie full of misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, and injured recriminations. (I once saw a teacher leading a line of fourth graders down the sidewalk to a theater to see Jonze’s film and, like the Catcher in the Rye, wanted to jump out of the car and save them from what they thought was going to be a film version of their favorite book.)

So, who is Disney’s “Into the Woods” for? Maybe it’s not fair to take kids, who will be lured by the clever first half and then bludgeoned by maturity in the second. Maybe it’s for cynical grown-ups and teen goths—in other words, those partial to moody decrescendo when innocence is “darkened.” But as I sat in the theater, it became evident that the real enthusiasts for this film are fans of musicals, those who loved L’Miz, theater majors, those who memorized the songs when their high school put on “Into the Woods” and now had the chance to sing along—in short, those who have yet to reexamine their initial enthusiasm for the television series “Glee.”

* * *

Jerry Griswold is the author of Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature.

Fringe Benefits of the Dark Side


Sharma Shields writes about her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in the NYT and how she manages bedtime reading with her children.


At night, I read fairy tales to the kids — “Hansel and Gretel,” “Snow-White and Rose-Red” — stories in which unsentimental children are abandoned in a brutal world, left to fend for themselves. My son briefly develops a fear of wolves; my daughter becomes terrified of skeletons. I want to tell them: People are scarier than wolves; we all have a skeleton inside of us. But I know better than to say such things, and maybe they need to feel what they feel and fear what they fear. I hold them close and kiss their heads and tell them I’ll always keep them safe.

 Readers’ comments seem evenly divided between those expressing shock and horror at the idea of reading Grimm to young children and those validating the choice.  Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with students about their encounters with scary stories, and most of them (granted, it’s a self-selecting group of voracious readers) emphasized their eagerness to explore the dark side.  I’ve always believed that children, even at a very young age, know their limits, and if a story is too frightening and overwhelms them in some way, they will either fall asleep or walk away.  If you read to your child on a regular basis, it’s easy to navigate this terrain with conversations about each story that help you instinctively calibrate what is appropriate for bedtime reading.  Reading fairy tales may expose children to the dark side, but it also introduces them to survival skills, teaching them to use their heads to outsmart predators.  Shoving the witch into the oven may be a bridge too far, but no reason to be reverent about the words on the page, especially for the younger crowd.

Marah Gubar on ANNIE


That an African American child can now be presented to the public as an all-American icon of innocence feels like a victory. After all, children growing up during the Great Depression—when Annie achieved her mythic status—inhabited a society in which purity and beauty were both coded white, as Toni Morrison makes clear in her insightful novel The Bluest Eye (1970). Morrison’s African American child protagonists struggle to maintain a sense of self-worth at a time when magazines, movies, children’s books, dolls, and even candy wrappers proclaimed that white children had cornered the market on cuteness. In this context, Wallis’s donning of Annie’s famous red dress constitutes a hopeful sign that our culture is growing less wedded to whiteness as an aesthetic ideal.