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Sue Cowley Shares Her Favourite Books For Putting A Spin On Traditional Tales

With a bit of a twist, the most familiar stories can teach children some unexpected lessons, says Sue Cowley

  • Sue Cowley Shares Her Favourite Books For Putting A Spin On Traditional Tales

One of the wonderful things about traditional fairy and folk tales is their longevity; the way they are passed down from generation to generation gives them real resonance within a culture.

There is generally a lot of subtext hidden behind the apparently simple story lines, and the plots may be rather dark (for the disturbing origins of some wellknown fairy tales – although definitely not ones to share with pupils – see here).

These are narratives that often reflect the fears, attitudes and prejudices of a society that is long gone – one in which princesses were helpless, wolves were evil and stepsisters were ugly. Teachers have a wonderful opportunity to help their children understand stereotypes and to challenge their perceptions, then, by using familiar stories retold in a modern format.

Start by encouraging your class to think about traditional tales as a genre. What do pupils think are the main/required ingredients of a folk or fairy story? How many such stories can they name? When and where did they first hear them? How are they passed from one generation to the next – and why do we end up with different versions of the same story?

Discuss the plot lines children would expect to find in a traditional tale, and what phrases and vocabulary they think are likely to be used in the telling of them (make a list, starting – of course – with ‘Once upon a time’). Do your learners know any traditional stories from other countries?

Traditional tales tend to have a moral of some kind – talk with the children about what this means. Can they identify morals in the stories they’ve already discussed? As a fun prelude to playing around with established narratives, share the book Mixed Up Fairy Tales with your class. Which familiar stories can pupils spot? Why does it make them funny when we mix them up together?

Popular pigs and wicked wolves

The ‘Big Bad Wolf’ tends to get a bad press – he is the villain in stories like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. Why do the children think that wolves are used as ‘baddies’? There are some delightful new versions of The Three Little Pigs, told from various different angles. In The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, an Americanised wolf explains that he was only trying to borrow a cup of sugar from the pigs, and it wasn’t his fault that he sneezed and brought their houses down. After reading the story:

• Talk about the language in the book – how has the original wording been adapted to create the new version? For instance, “Way back in once upon a time time” / “I huffed and I snuffed and I sneezed a great sneeze”.

• Write scripts of a police interview with Alexander T. Wolf, and record these. Use the US version of the ‘Miranda Rights’ for added authenticity.

• In the book, the story appears in “The Daily Pig”. Discuss how a wolf reporter might have reported the story differently. Get the children to write an alternative version for “The Daily Wolf”.

• Create a talk show episode on which the wolf and the pigs appear, to be interviewed and to put their sides of the story. Your talk show could have the tagline: “Wolfie Strikes Back”.

• In The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig the characters are reversed, with the wolves attacked by the pig. The building materials are modernised; as is the way the houses are demolished. After sharing the book:

• Identify the phrases from the story that the children recognise from the original. Why does the author echo words from the traditional tale?

• Explore why the author describes the wolves as “three cuddly little wolves with soft fur and fluffy tails”. How is the reader meant to feel about the wolves from this description? Get the children to write their own descriptions, using lots of adjectives.

• In this version, the wolves get bricks from a kangaroo, concrete from a beaver, metal from a rhinoceros and flowers from a flamingo. Why do the children think that the author chose these particular animals? Write some descriptions of the creatures, with adjectives to help the reader understand their characters.

• Discuss why the wolves choose flowers as their final building material. Was this a good choice? Why does the Big Bad Pig change his mind about eating the wolves? What is the moral here?

Changing stories

Once you’ve worked on some versions of traditional tales told from a different perspective, the children should be ready to develop ideas of their own. They could:

• Draw story maps of some of the original tales, and use these to identify which characters or parts of the plot they could change.

• Write a story with an alternative title, based on the familiar structure. For instance, The Three Little Flies and the Big Bad Spider.

• Compose a version of Cinderella where the ugly sisters explain why they have been misunderstood, and how they weren’t actually horrible to her.

• Create Top Trumps style cards for different fairytale characters, adapted so that they are the opposite of what we would normally expect.

• Come up with a version of a story where the traditional ‘villain’ is swapped with the traditional ‘hero’. For instance, three trolls trying to get over a bridge that has an evil goat lurking below.

• Rewrite a traditional story from the viewpoint of an inanimate object (see The Pea and the Princess for inspiration).

• Dramatise some scenes in which various fairytale characters appear in surprising incarnations – as happens in the popular film series Shrek.

• Look at some traditional tales from other cultures – how are these similar and different to stories from Britain? Which parts of the narratives might we change to update them?

Perfect princesses and pucker princes

The princesses in many well-known traditional tales are not great role models. Use rewritten stories to challenge old-fashioned stereotypes; first, ask the children to brainstorm what a storybook ‘princess’ would be like. Now read Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants:

• What words would they use to describe this princess?

• How is she different from a traditional storybook princess?

• Why does Princess Smartypants turn the prince into a frog?

• Introduce the word ‘stereotype’ to the class. What kinds of characters tend to get stereotyped in stories?

Of course it’s not just girls who get stereotyped in stories – boys do, too. Read a traditional version of Cinderella, and then read Babette Cole’s Prince Cinders:

• How does Babette Cole’s version of the story differ from the original? What similarities are there?

• Why do the children think the author makes the fairy godmother appear dirty and the spells go wrong?

• What words would we normally associate with a prince? What words would we use to describe Prince Cinders?

• Why do the children think the book ends with the ugly brothers being turned into house fairies?

The reading list

Mixed Up Fairy Tales by Hilary Robinson and Nick Sharratt (Hodder Children’s Books 2005)

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith (Picture Puffin 1991)

The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury (Egmont 2015)

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole (Puffin, 1996)

Prince Cinders by Babette Cole (Puffin, 1997)

The Pea and the Princess by Mini Grey (Red Fox 2004)

A description of various kinds of traditional tales can be found here

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