The Hidden Messages in Children’s Fairy Tales

Revisiting kids’ books in adulthood can yield all sorts of weird and wonderful subtexts, some more obvious than others… How could Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas be anything other than a parable of consumerism? Similar close readings have rendered the Paddington Bear books fables about immigration and Babar the Elephant an endorsement of French colonialism…The Very Hungry Caterpillar [is] the tale of one creature’s obsessive-compulsive quest to fill a hole that can’t be filled, or a prose poem about demonic possession.” Hephzibah Anderson

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

The Very Hungry Caterpillar By Eric Carle. Photo- Wikipedia

The Very Hungry Caterpillar By Eric Carle. Photo- Wikipedia

Excerpt : The hidden messages in children’s books  By Hephzibah Anderson- BBC

As a child many of my favourite books had food as a theme. One in particular told the story of a boy who helped save his local burger bar by becoming a gastro-sleuth to track down a lost secret ingredient. Long after losing track of the book and forgetting its title, I found myself in Edinburgh to interview Alexander McCall Smith. He was already the mega-selling author of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but years earlier, he had published a few children’s books. There among them on a shelf was The Perfect Hamburger. It was my book. Except that it wasn’t – not really. While burgers do indeed feature in lip-smacking detail, this time it was clear to me that The Perfect Hamburger is actually a tale of corporate greed and the fate of small businesses forced to compete with big chains.

The Perfect Hamburger by Alexander McCall Smith

The Perfect Hamburger by Alexander McCall Smith

 How could Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas be anything other than a parable of consumerism?  It’s easy to poke fun at some of these more outlandish readings. Could they perhaps be the products of parents so addled by a text that, following their umpteenth nightly recital, the words start acting like one of those magic-eye images? Stare at them long enough and sense will materialise. Or nonsense. How else could a 22-page picture book like The Very Hungry Caterpillar yield capitalist, Christian, feminist, Marxist, queer and anti-liberal messages?

 The Uses of Enchantment explains the therapeutic importance of fairy tales in children’s education…So-called children’s literature has plenty to offer adults, too argues Dr Sheldon Cashdan, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. As he explains in his book The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales, these stories enable kids to see the struggle between good and bad – a struggle that they feel within themselves – acted out on the page, with good prevailing and the witch meeting an invariably gruesome end.

Babar the Elephant By Jean de Brunhoff. Photo BBC

Babar the Elephant By Jean de Brunhoff. Photo BBC

Paddington Bear by Michael Bond. Photo- Goodreads

Paddington Bear by Michael Bond. Photo- Goodreads

These battles persist throughout life. “Notions of greed, of wanting more than you actually need – you can see this in the bonuses of hedge fund managers and [people who have] houses with five bathrooms. Or the subtle, maybe not so subtle, ways that people lie – dating and telling things that aren’t exactly true, fudging their income tax returns.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours. 

Materials: Student handouts (from this lesson)  and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing. 

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions

Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article.  

Pre-reading Organizer By Scholastic.

Pre-reading Organizer By Scholastic.

II. While Reading Tasks

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Map for assistance. 

  1. As a child many of my favorite books had food as a theme.
  2. The boy in the story was a gastro-sleuth.
  3. Revisiting kids’ books in adulthood can yield wonderful subtexts.
  4. This is is  a parable of consumerism.
  5. It’s easy to poke fun at some of these more outlandish readings.
  6. Some parents are addled by a text.
  7. Such layered meanings are crucial to the longevity of stories.
  8. The story is about children’s regression and separation anxiety. 
  9. These stories enable kids to see the struggle between good and bad –  with good prevailing.
  10. These battles persist throughout life.
Word Map Education Oasis.

Word Map Education Oasis.

Reading Comprehension

Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word or phrase to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

  1. As a child many of my favorite books had food as a thyme/theme.
  2. I found myself/me in Edinburgh.
  3. It was my book/brook.
  4. It’s easy to poke fun at some of these more outland/outlandish readings.
  5. This is a very simple/sample story, but simplicity is not the same as a lack of depth.
  6. Sometimes meanings seem hid/hidden because we’re too caught up in the story.
  7. So-called children’s literature has plenty to offer/off adults.
  8. It’s only as adults that we make the mistake of thinking that children’s literature is essentially escapist/escape.
  9. These stories are about eternal/eternity  human strengths and weaknesses.
  10. The hidden natural/nature of their messages is crucial to their magic.

 Grammar Focus

Prepositions

Directions: The following sentences are from the article.  For each sentence choose the correct preposition from the choices presented.

Choose one of the Prepositions:  at, on, of, to, in, as,

  1. One story in particular told the story___a boy who helped save his local burger bar.
  2. Long after losing track___the book and forgetting its title, I found myself___ Edinburgh___ interview Alexander McCall Smith.
  3.  There among them___ a shelf was The Perfect Hamburger.
  4. It was clear ___me that The Perfect Hamburger is actually a tale___corporate greed.
  5. It’s easy to poke fun___ some of these more outlandish readings.
  6. We might not be aware___such adult messages when we read books___kids.
  7. So-called children’s literature has plenty___offer adults.

III. Post Reading Tasks

Reading Comprehension Check

Directions:  Have students use this advanced organizer from Write Design to assist them with  discussing  or writing about  the main idea and points from the article. 

 

Main idea chart By Write Design

Discussion/Writing Exercise

Directions: Place students in groups and have them answer the following questions. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the following discussion topics.

1. The following  two statements were taken from the article. Rephrase each one, then discuss the meaning with the members of your group. 

“It’s easy to poke fun at some of these more outlandish readings. Could they perhaps be the products of parents so addled by a text that, following their umpteenth nightly recital, the words start acting like one of those magic-eye images? Stare at them long enough and sense will materialize. Or nonsense.”

 “There are some exquisite picture books that tackle existential issues like death and sadness head on… Just because we might not be aware of such adult messages when we read books as kids, doesn’t mean we aren’t absorbing them. However far this kind of ‘message seems to leap out at the adult reader, it is probably closer to the truth to say that the message has always been there but the knowledge that allows it to be recognized has not.”

 2. Did you have a favorite fairy tale that you liked to read when you were young? Provide the name of the story and your reasons for liking it then. Do you still like this story? Why or why not?

3. In your opinion what are the most important points of this article?

3-2-1-Writing

Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned from the article, two things they did not understand in the article, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class. 

 ANSWER KEY

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