Should Today’s Children Still be Reading Little Red Riding Hood?

Thoughts on traditional folk tales in a modern world

Last week, I brought Richard Scarry’s Animal Nursery Tales over to my sister’s house to read to my three (soon to be four) year old nephew. I’d found the book at an estate sale a few months ago. It had all the classic children’s stories — Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears to name a few — but with Scarry’s classic and enchanting style of illustration. What a find!

The front and back cover serve as a sort of pictorial table of contents. Owen and I looked through the pictures together and we settled on our first story, Little Red Riding Hood. “Have you heard this story before?” I looked at him and then over at his mother, who was playing with Owen’s baby brother on the other sofa. She shook her head. Wow, I thought. What a first. Imagine never having heard Little Red Riding Hood before. I couldn’t.

And so we began the story. He was very engaged. I thought to myself, reading through the first few pages, this flows so well. Lots of repetition and interesting visuals — no wonder it’s a classic. I did my best Wolf voice as he asks Little Red Riding Hood, “Where are you going, little miss?” upon meeting her in the forest. I made big eyes at Owen and he was hooked, wondering what the big bad wolf was going to do next. I read how the wolf hurried over to Grandmother’s house, getting there before Little Red Riding Hood.

I did my best Grandmother voice as she calls out, “Who is there?” when the wolf knocks at the door before switching quickly to a strange wolf-pretending-to-be-a-little-girl voice as he replies, “It is I, Little Red Riding Hood.” Checking to make sure Owen was following, I asked him, “But is it really Little Red Riding Hood?” “No!” He was actually paying attention and following along! I’d had trouble lately finding books that sustained his interest. This was great!

And then we got to…

“Just pull the latch string and come in, my dear!” said Grandmother.

The wolf came in.

He leaped at Grandmother and swallowed her whole!

I had forgotten this part was here. I looked over at Owen. He seemed okay… We continued the story. But I was on high alert now and realizing with each new page, This is actually a terrifying story. Grandmother has been eaten. Now the wolf is impersonating Grandmother. Poor Little Red Riding Hood has unknowingly come right up to the wolf. She doesn’t know it’s the wolf, but we do, and the build up of ‘What big ears you have’ and ‘What big eyes you have’ leading up to the climax of ‘What big teeth you have’ is very, very scary. The story wraps up with the wolf chasing Little Red Riding Hood out of the house and then a woodcutter cutting open the wolf to rescue Grandmother from his stomach. Grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood live and are not physically harmed, but one can imagine that they (and perhaps even a young reader!) are emotionally traumatized.

We’d gotten to the end of the story. I was a little worried about Owen and ready to call it a day, but he wanted another story. Maybe that wasn’t so bad after all? We looked through the front and back cover again. I suggested The Three Little Pigs. Owen looked at me cautiously. “Is there a wolf in it?” he asked. “Yes…” “Is the wolf bad?” “Yes…” “Then I don’t want to read that one.” I winced. Poor little guy.

So we read The Gingerbread Man. In this story, a gingerbread man comes to life and runs away. He outruns everyone in the town and they’re all chasing him. When he gets to a river and realizes he can’t get across, a fox offers him a ride across on the fox’s back. The gingerbread man accepts. Partway across the river, the fox tells the gingerbread man that the water is getting higher and he had better climb up onto his head. So the gingerbread man does. Then, the fox says the water is getting even higher and the gingerbread man should climb up onto the fox’s nose. So he does. And then the fox eats the gingerbread man and the story ends. “That’s it?” Owen asked. Yes, Owen, that’s it. Both feeling a little flat at that point, we put the book to rest.

Later that night and all through the next day, I wondered about what I had read. Those were the stories of my childhood, told to me a million times over in different books and TV shows. I turned out fine. Everybody has read them. We’re all fine. Maybe we’re too soft now is all. They’re stories.

But that didn’t feel satisfying and so I thought some more.

I came to what I thought was a helpful question, What is the purpose of children’s stories?

Surely, children’s stories are meant to entertain. But then, they’re also often instructive.

And what we’ve wanted stories to teach children has changed over time. Little Red Riding Hood is thought to have originated in the 17th century. According to Hannah Newton, author of The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580–1720, in 17th century England, almost one-third of young people died before they were 15 years old. And ‘Rather than shielding their offspring from these foreboding facts, parents encouraged their children to think about their own mortality.’ (source) Indeed, in tale after tale, death or the possibility of death makes a recurring appearance. Little Red Riding Hood is an instructive tale that warns about threats to one’s own mortality. Do not talk to strangers — or you may die. Beware of wolves — or you may die. Similarly, with The Gingerbread Man. Do not unthinkingly place your trust in strangers, even if they appear to be trying to help you — or you may die. Death was a significant and real threat, so many of these stories provided instruction as to how to avoid death.

Thankfully, in most parts of the world, death in childhood is much less of a threat. And so it makes sense that newer stories don’t provide this flavor of instruction. Simple survival is no longer the primary concern for most parents.

We can refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for clues on what instead may be a new focus. According to Maslow, once physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest) and safety needs (security and safety) — together what I am calling simple survival — are met, then the next needs are ‘Love and Belonging’ (intimate relationships, friends, family, connection) and after that ‘Esteem’ (respect, self-esteem, confidence). When I think of modern children’s stories, they absolutely seem to be focused on these next two categories of needs. Modern stories do not tend to instruct children on how to physically survive, but instead instruct on how to form and maintain relationships and how to develop a sense of self-worth.

Think of the recent Disney movie, Encanto. Mirabel, the only one in her family who has not been given a magical gift, struggles to feel like she fits in with her family. As she tries to help the family, initially it seems like she’s making things worse and so she questions her own abilities and worth. By the end of the story, by being herself and by being honest and open with her family, she is able to save the family and realize her own place in the family as well as develop feelings of self-worth and confidence.

Think of the classic Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which provided instruction on how to handle emotions such as anger, and also on how to process complicated but realistic threats to a child such as divorce or the death of a loved one.

These are the problems of today’s children, and we have updated our stories to reflect that.

Naturally, some of the older children’s tales now feel a little out of place.

And so while my initial response to reading Little Red Riding Hood was Well, I read that as a kid. We’re too soft now, my thoughts have evolved. I now think that just because it’s a story that’s familiar doesn’t mean that it will have more value to a child. A good story for a child has some combination of entertainment and instruction. Little Red Riding Hood no longer instructs, but it absolutely still entertains, provided that any fear the child feels does not overshadow any entertainment value he may receive. And this last part depends on the child and their age and maturity level.

Was Little Red Riding Hood a good story for Owen? Eh…I don’t think it did a terrible amount of harm, but he probably wasn’t quite ready for it. I told him a story that had a lesson he didn’t really need and that was probably equally scary as it was entertaining. There are lots of stories out there that provide lessons that are more useful to him that he would find just as entertaining (and less scary). I’ll probably stick with those for now.

The Appeal of the Plotless

From Berlin: Symphony of a Great City

The other night, I came across the film ‘Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.’ It’s a black and white silent film from 1927. We see shots of the city and its people all from one day, starting from early morning and ending late into the evening. The film shows men and women from all walks of life, each going about his or her day, their paths crossing and diverging as we follow men and women from all social classes. In busy roads, we see horses pulling carts delivering goods and others pulling men and women in coaches. A man runs after and manages to get onto a crowded trolley. Those on bicycles and those very wealthy chauffeured within automobiles are amongst the crowd. Pedestrians weaving their way perilously through the traffic complete the picture. 

Throughout the film, which includes depictions of train stations, neighborhoods, factories, mess halls, expensive restaurants and hotels, theaters, the rich and the poor, engaged in both labor and leisure, there is no narrator or narration. The only words that appear on screen is the announcement of the movement into a new Act. (Akt I, Akt II, Akt III…) We follow no individuals in particular. We have both the birds eye view and that of the fly on the wall. 

There is no arc. There is no story. There is no plot. 

Instead, we see life. The film captures, quite beautifully, Berlin and its people on a day in 1927.

There are limitations to plot. Real life doesn’t follow a narrative arc. We take events and make them fit along storylines, along plots. But these are curated. We hear one side of the story, see one part of the picture. Your life, my life — life in general doesn’t follow a narrative arc. Events happen and people and places and objects exist and then don’t exist. 

I have always enjoyed the plotless. I sometimes find myself enjoying the first few chapters of novels where the character, place, and setting are developed — and then losing interest as the story, and plot, develop. I think I could read a treasury of beginnings. I enjoy the feeling of being dropped into a setting, persona, place, and time and imagining, So this is what it might be like to be you.

There are novels out there for people like me. A favorite is Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. The central character, Claudia, is on her deathbed and envisions,

 ‘A history of the world…And in the process, my own.’ Of its nature, ‘I shall omit the narrative. What I shall do is flesh it out; give it life and colour, add the screams and the rhetoric…The question is, shall it or shall it not be linear history? I’ve always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out. Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence. Everything happens at once.’

 And so, Moon Tiger is told forwards and backwards in time, and from multiple perspectives. Sometimes we witness an event as Claudia and other times as her daughter, as her sister-in-law. There is no central narrative arc, but we do uncover as the story progresses, Claudia, piece by piece in what is a compelling and engaging telling.

Another novel I admire is The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. It has a unique shape. The frame of the story is a self-standing short novel, called Free Women. But sections of this story are separated by the contents of four notebooks, written by the central character of Free Women, Anna. In one notebook, she is Anna the author. In another, Anna writes about her time with the Communist Party and politics. In another, Anna tells the story of fictional characters whose experiences closely parallel her own. And one is like a diary. Then, there is a final notebook (the golden notebook) which is Anna’s attempt to bring the four other notebooks together. The Golden Notebook is fascinating. The various notebooks overlap and don’t overlap and together create a picture of a very complicated woman and mind. Lessing has written on the format of the book,

 ‘Another idea was that if the book were shaped in the right way it would make its own comment about the conventional novel…To put the short novel Free Women as a summary and condensation of all that mass material, was to say something about the conventional novel, another way of describing the dissatisfaction of a writer when something is finished: “How little I have managed to say of the truth, how little I have caught of all that complexity; how can this small neat thing be true when what I experienced was so rough and apparently formless and unshaped.” But my major aim was to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped.’

And here I move away from fiction, where plot, story, and action are expected to non-fiction that appeals to me in its plotlessness. 

The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin is a work thirteen years in the making that was left unfinished when Benjamin died. It was to be a description of and criticism of nineteenth century society in Paris, told through a focus on the new indoor glass-roofed shopping arcades that were beginning to be popular at the time. Benjamin intended it to be a collage-like work. He drew from an incredible volume and breadth of primary sources. Although there is speculation as to how far the unfinished Arcades Project differs structurally from how Benjamin imagined the finished work, the unfinished work has become a significant piece in its own right. The Arcades Project is divided into 36 categories, such as ‘Mirrors’, ‘Prostitution’, ‘Idleness’, and ‘The Flaneur.’ Each section then has material directly quoted from primary sources, contributing towards the category as well as the overall purpose of the work. Of its effect, Thomas Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin write in the forward, ‘These proliferating passages, extracted from their original context like collectibles, were eventually set up to communicate among themselves, often in a rather subterranean manner. The organized masses of historical objects — the particular items of Benjamin’s displays (drafts and excerpts) — together give rise to “a world of secret affinities.”’ In this way, the arrangement and curation of material conspire to allow the reader to draw her own connections and create her own meaning, encouraged and guided by the raw material, but not strictly directed as she would otherwise be through a traditional narration. 

A work similar in its collage-ness is The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. Holbrook Jackson, in his introduction to the 1932 edition, states it best:

‘The Anatomy looks like a crude assembly of quotations and it is indeed a vast mobilization of the notions and expressions of others, yet it is not they but the rifler who is revealed on every page, it is he, not they, who peeps from behind every quotation. The reason is clear. He is an artist in literary mosaic, using the shreds and patches he has torn from the work of others to make a picture emphatically his own. Books are his raw material. Other artists fashion images out of clay, contrive fabrics and forms of stone, symphonies of words, sounds, or pigments. Burton makes a cosmos out of quotations. He raids the writings of the past, which he often finds neglected or in ruins, and reassembles them in a structure of his own, much as the ruins of Rome were pillaged by the builders of the Renaissance and worked into the temples and palaces of a new civilization.’

A more recent attempt to curate and present thematically can be found in Lapham’s Quarterly, which organizes primary sources into a topic for each issue — topics ranging from ‘Migration’ to ‘Music’ to ‘Death.’ 

In the works I’ve mentioned so far, I think I can summarize their appeal to me in that they seem more honest and true to reality in the choices their creators made not to fit their contents into a more traditional narrative arc. With the nonfiction (and here Berlin: Symphony of a Great City seems to fit), raw material is presented, arranged yes in a certain way, and definitely curated — but not explained. The reader or viewer has the joy and liberty of making her own connections and meaning. The reader is allowed to connect the dots in her own way and there are infinite possibilities when the creator has not already defined one path. In not prescribing meaning, the works seem more — honest.

In the same light, the novels, in their abandonment of the traditional narrative arc, also seem more honest. There was more to these stories — and more to life — than can fit within a neat storyline. The authors, in not being constrained by plot and by having to move their characters along in space and time from a point a to a point b, are free to give us something more, something that to me felt truer. And that to me is the appeal of the plotless — authenticity, truth, and I also probably enjoy the streak of independence, the deviation from the norm.

Alain de Botton on What Lies Beneath When We Overreact

I had an argument last week with someone I care deeply about. I was offended and hurt at a scale disproportionate to what had happened. I was overreacting, and I was aware that I was overreacting. I could recognize the disconnect between the triviality of what had happened and the enormity of what I was feeling. But conscious as I was of my overreacting, the emotions were still there and I had days of unease.

The philosopher Alain de Botton in his book, The Course of Love, describes this phenomenon well.

The structure looks something like this: an apparently ordinary situation or remark elicits from one member of a couple a reaction that doesn’t seem quite warranted, being unusually full of annoyance or anxiety, irritability or coldness, panic or recrimination. The person on the receiving end is puzzled. After all, it was just a simple request for a loving good-bye, a plate or two left unwashed in the sink, a small joke at the other’s expense or a few minutes’ delay. Why, then, the peculiar and somehow outsized response?

The behavior makes little sense when one tries to understand it according to the current facts. It’s as if some aspect of the present scenario were drawing energy from another source, as if it were unwittingly triggering a pattern of behavior that the other person originally developed long ago in order to meet a particular threat which has now somehow been subconsciously re-evoked. The overreactor is responsible, as the psychological term puts it, for the “transference” of an emotion from the past onto someone in the present – who perhaps doesn’t entirely deserve it.

Our minds are, oddly, not always good at knowing what era they are in.

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In this way, in overreactions we can be reacting as much as or even more to events in our past than we are reacting to the situation directly at hand. Psychologist and author Dr. Elaine Aron as in her book The Undervalued Self would say this is the mind reliving and reacting to trauma.

When a trauma involves an experience so bad that we can’t look at the whole thing, the mind must break it up for us, meaning that we dissociate. We may separate entire events from our consciousness so that we have no memory of them at all. Or we may separate feelings about a trauma from our memories of it, so that we do remember what happened but have no feelings about it. Meanwhile, we experience upsetting feelings, including chronic anxiety and depression, for “no reason.” And we behave in ways that surprise us because we do not see the connection between what we are doing now and the trauma in the past.

Trauma, according to Dr. Aron can take a variety of forms. She writes that

[trauma] occurs when emotions are not just overwhelming but in some real sense unbearable. With enough stress and a sense of powerlessness to prevent more stress, the mind loses its wholeness and “falls apart,” “breaks down,” or “goes to pieces.” The brain goes through changes that, although often reversible, are the equivalent of an injury. Trauma can be acute, an abrupt experience, or chronic, something that grinds you down over time.Most life traumas involve other people in some way. Someone abandoned, defeated, hurt, or rejected us. Or, during a physical trauma, we feel that a person did not help us or did not help enough. As a result, most traumas automatically lead to the innate defeat response of depression and shame and an overall low sense of self-worth.

There can be so much happening within conflict and so many layers and such depth to what each person is feeling and why. We are all messy and damaged in our own ways. I really love then the approach that De Botton takes in so much of his writing to have the patience with a friend or lover as one does with a child. He writes in The Course of Love,

We would ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulker’s fury. We would recognize the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: “Deep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you correctly to guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.”

We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favor when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant. We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronizing to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with – and forgive – the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.

And to echo that sentiment of patience and understanding even when those we love are being trying,

Few in this world are every simply nasty; those who hurt us are themselves in pain. The appropriate response is hence never cynicism nor aggression but, at the rare moments one can manage it, always love.