What’s In A Fairy Tale

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales,” Einstein is purported to have said. I’m going out on a limb to expand what Einstein was saying. I realize we weren’t close friends Albert and me. He didn’t call me at home for conversation when he couldn’t sleep or to ask for a recipe. That was mostly because he died eleven days before I was born, but that aside, I think he was saying – read to your children. Read them the back of the cereal box or the directions for using Krazy Glue or the descriptions in the catalogue, just read to them. Introduce them to a love affair with books. Take them regularly to the library where free passage can be found to the universe. Let the dust balls gather, never mind changing the oil in the car, forget the laundry or cutting the grass. Read to them.

I went to the Halifax Central Library last week, the first time since Covid invited itself to the party and like a very bad guest is refusing to leave. A library has always felt like home to me, the books my friends – old friends and ones I’ve yet to meet. The Halifax Central library is immense and airy and open, an architectural statement, and it is indeed lovely. But I find myself longing for the library of my childhood, the quiet and closeness of it, the dark wooden tables, the stairs to the basement to the children’s section, the long line of Nancy Drew mysteries and the Lone Ranger and the Noddy books and Mrs. Mason and an endless stream of horse stories.

The space in the Halifax Central Library is too big for me, with its front wall of five floors of glass, with automated doors that say come in if you’re hesitant, with its four sets of staircases tacking through the space, to left and right, like a sailboat finding its way from the first to the fifth floor. It is grand and welcoming and structurally beautiful but …

As I read the Einstein quote the other day, it got me thinking about fairy tales, the original ones, not the Disney versions of today. Fairy tales seem focused on killing off the mother before or shortly after the story begins because life without a mother is a difficult one to function in and fairy tales always have a lesson to be learned, a rising above despite the odds. Learning to exist without a mother in a fairy tale is symbolic of learning how to grow up. I still resist the notion.

We know that the earliest fairy tales were written in Italy in the 17th Century. These versions were made less violent by the Brothers Grimm in Germany beginning in 1812 and by Charles Perrault of France who rewrote those early tales to amuse his children. Perrault died not long after the release of his Mother Goose Stories in 1698. Some of our classic fairy tales exist in most languages around the world, meaning we all get the point, to some degree, that Einstein is making.

The University of Hawaii in 2016 released a paper The Positive Impacts of Fairy Tales for Children, written by Leilani VisikoKnox-Johnson, saying a fairy tale “helps young children make sense of what it is to be human and helps them understand the world around them”. Children who have endured abuse and neglect are living in situations where evil is winning over good, so therapists sometimes use fairy tales to unlock “feelings of mistrust”.

Fairy tales have a balance of good and evil, their interaction and conflict, with good winning out in the end. According to Psychology Today, “hope” is the essential part of the story, “without which the child cannot prosper.” The repeated telling of the story in the comfort of home “nurtures the imagination and assuages fear”.

The lesson here is to read to our children – read, read, read, because Einstein had more to say on the subject. “If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”