This Saturday may be the birthday of the most famous character in all of children's literature: Mother Goose. Well, at least it's the birthday of the writer who, most scholars believe, first associated the name Mother Goose with a collection of fairy tales for children.
Charles Perrault (pronounced peer-ROW) was born in Paris on Jan. 12, 1628, and published a book of eight folk tales in 1697, titled "Stories of Long Ago." He subtitled the book "Tales of Mother Goose," though why he chose the name Mother Goose, no one is sure. Perhaps the name, like most of the stories in the book, had existed in oral tradition for many years. But here was the first written connection between Mother Goose and fairy tales - and, what tales they were. Seven of the eight stories in the book became children's classics throughout the world, including such timeless favorites as "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Puss in Boots."There is much concern today about whether these fairy tales, and the stories that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected a century later, should be included in family read-alouds. Most of them, after all, include the same violence and stereotyping that modern parents find so objectionable on television. Consequently, many parents and teachers have avoided retelling these tales, believing that the stories may do more harm than good.
This is unfortunate, I think, for a variety of reasons. First of all, as Jim Trelease in "The Read-Aloud Handbook" points out, "The fairy tale confirms what the child has been thinking all along - that it is a cold, cruel world out there. . . . But it goes one step further. The tale advises the child: Take courage in hand and go out and meet the world head on."
These tales are also firmly fixed in our common culture, and so our children are frequently presented with indirect and direct references to them. Children who are unfamiliar with these stories and characters, are at a decided disadvantage in attaching any meaning to these visual and written allusions.
But do the tales have to be presented in their original versions in order to achieve these ends? The answer is "no," and they almost never are.
The "original" versions of our most popular fairy tales are so violent that they were toned down long ago. Sleeping Beauty, for example, was not kissed by the handsome prince - but raped! The wicked wolf devoured Little Red Riding Hood as well as her grandmother. Cinderella's stepmother ensured that her eldest daughter's foot would fit the slipper by hacking off the daughter's toes, and then her heel. Ugh!
The original stories have undergone other changes as well. Goldilocks, in Robert Southey's 1837 version, was an angry, homeless, old woman. Another writer, 12 years later, changed her to a little girl, and called her "Silver-Hair." In 1868, she was called "Golden Hair," and not until 1904 did she become "Goldilocks."
In the early French version of "Cinderella," the heroine wore "pantoufles en vair," that is, "slippers of fur." But by the time Perrault set the tale in writing, "vair" had slipped from the language, and he confused the word with "verre," which was pronounced the same but meant "glass."
A brand new and highly inventive rendering of these classic tales has just been published by Carol Publishing Co. "Upside Down Tales" tell the standard version first ("Jack and the Beanstalk," for example) and then the same story from another point of view (that of the giant). This is an idea that parents and teachers can use to get maximum advantage out of these somewhat troublesome tales. There are many perspectives to each story, and by having children retell the tale from any character's (or object's) point of view, we can lessen their terror and heighten their creativity.