Folk stories often reveal how times have changed – explore these themes and write your own updated versions with these ideas
As a child I loved visiting my grandmother. She told me fairytales from eastern Europe; dark, rich stories that fascinated and terrified me, fired my imagination and raised endless questions about life and death, right and wrong, choices and consequences, and what it means to be human. Her stories showed me that people are connected by universal fears, hopes and dreams, and the desire to make sense of life with a story.
But my grandmother’s tales were from another time and place. They didn’t represent my world, in which young boys were not battle-ready heroes, young girls were not waiting for a prince, and stepmothers were not evil.
Occasionally, my grandmother would tell a different kind of tale; about a girl who hunted in men’s clothing (Vasilisa the Priest’s Daughter) or a queen who left her husband to go to war (Maria Morevna), and I knew that these tales touched on an important truth: that stereotypes need to be challenged. I believe fairytales can be used to do this, as well as celebrate cultural diversity, so here are some activities for you to try in the classroom.
In groups or as a class, look at well-known fairytales such as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel. Ask pupils to think about the characters. Who needs help and who does the helping? Which characters are active and which are passive? Who is beautiful and who is ugly? Who is a hero and who is a villain?
Can children identify stereotypes? Examples include the damsel in distress, the brave and handsome prince, the evil stepmother, the ugly old witch and the happily-ever-after involving royal marriage.
Ask pupils if these stereotypes are true and encourage them to think critically. Explain that many fairytales were written long ago, when values and attitudes were different. Discuss the problems of perpetuating stereotypes today, including reinforcing inaccurate perceptions, false expectations and ideals.
Look at fairytales with non-stereotypical characters. Old tales include Gulnara the Tatar Warrior, Vasilisa the Fair, Kate Crackernuts and Minon-Minette. Modern retellings that would work well include Prince Cinders by Babette Cole, The Paperbag Princess by Munsch and Martchenko, Lon Po Po by ED Young and The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell.
Ask pupils how the characters break stereotypes and what the benefits of sharing these stories are, including building more accurate world views, representing a wider range of individuals, and providing varied role models.
Challenge pupils to retell a well-known fairytale, removing stereotypes. For example, the children can swap the gender roles in Rapunzel, save Cinderella without marriage, make the witch in Hansel and Gretel a hero or give the prince in Sleeping Beauty a fear to overcome.
Share fairytales from different countries, such as The Seven Chinese Brothers, an Anansi tale from west Africa, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters from Zimbabwe, an Arabian Nights tale from the Middle East, The Whistling Monster from Brazil or The Mud Pony from north America. Ask children to identify cultural differences including landscapes, occupations, family dynamics, governments, values, foods and clothing.
Can pupils find common elements in fairytales from different cultures? They might identify character archetypes (heroes, villains, helpers), talking animals, magical objects and overarching desires to be good and overcome evil.
Study geographical variants of one tale. One example to use is Cinderella, which is known as Rashin-Coatie in Scotland, Chinye in Nigeria, Rhodopis in Egypt, Kao and the Golden Fish in Thailand, Yeh-Shen in China, The Golden Sandal in Iraq and Sootface in north America. Compare similarities and differences and ask pupils how a story might travel and change.
Challenge children to write a fairytale in a particular setting, such as the American wild west, Japan in the time of Samurai warriors, France during WW2 or a block of flats in London today. Encourage pupils to research and carefully depict the culture.
Fairytales provide an insight into different societies, histories and cultures. They are our heritage and can illustrate diversity, while also showing commonalities and revealing how times have changed. They are enjoyable stories filled with wonder, enchantment, big ideas and themes and can provide safe spaces to explore difficult ideas. Through careful use, you can keep the genre exciting and relevant, and ensure generations continue to be inspired and educated by these magical tales.
Sophie Anderson is the author of The House with Chicken Legs (£6.99, Usborne). Interior illustrations by Elisa Paganelli, cover artwork by Melissa Castrillón.