There are few types of literature that are as important for people to know as fairy tales and folk tales.
Judging by the popularity of fantasy, plenty of people, children and adults, will enjoy them too!
The other advantage is the fact that they do come from the oral tradition, and even their written versions were done long ago, so there are many options in the public domain.
The thing to remember about all traditional literature, however, is that most of it was not originally written for children…that is in fact why some of these collections are recommended for children much older than you might expect, and even then, these stories are meant to be read to or with children rather than being something the children can necessarily go off and read on their own.
Pinning down good electronic copies of these books can be tricky. I have done my best, but when you click through the recommendations I have here to Amazon, please double check that you have the best option. Sometimes, if you opt for an edition costing a dollar or two, you will get illustrations, when the completely free copies are not illustrated. Available editions also change constantly.
I’ve grouped the collections by the youngest appropriate age level, but most of these collections are actually good for everyone, including teens and adults.
Many people will be surprised and even sometimes shocked by the original versions of stories that they THINK they know…especially if they “know” them through the Disney versions.
Ages 5 and UP
Most people know that Aesop is traditionally a Greek slave who told these stories, but what actually happened is unclear. Anyway, the stories are simple and short so young children can understand and remember them, with help.
The version listed here has color illustrations.
Narrative Poem Picture Book
The Pied Piper of Hamlin by Robert Browning
This narrative poem/story is more of a literary fairy tale, but this is a wonderful story for young children…and also they should grow up knowing who the “pied piper” is, not to mention moral of the story, which is to keep your promises!
The language might be a bit hard, but the simple story and rhyme should carry them through.
African/African American/Native American
When I was growing up, Uncle Remus was pretty much ignored, but I had seen the Disney film, Song of the South in the theater when I was very young, during either the 1972 or ‘73 re-release. From the perspective of the post Civil Rights era, anything involving an “Uncle Remus” seemed hopelessly racist and dated.
Flash forward decades…and I found myself researching African tales to develop a unit for elementary school aged children. Lo and behold, I started finding tales about a tricky rabbit…from Africa! Which reminded me of Br’er Rabbit, who I knew from Song of the South.
Similar stories also appear in North American Native cultures.
So whether American slave populations brought the stories from Africa with them, learned them from Natives in North America, or a combination, it seems to me that the stories are worthy of study.
The frame story that Harris wrote for stories that he did collect from former slaves after the Civil War is that of a former slave, Uncle Remus, who is telling the stories to a child.
People also may be offended by Harris’s use of “dialect” in Uncle Remus’ speech, but he would have done that to maintain the authenticity of the tales and speech patterns in a time when there was no other way to record them. I would argue that maintaining them is a means of showing respect for them, and any attempt at sanitizing the speech patterns is in and of itself racist.
Because I want to maintain a connection to my own roots, I deliberately try to maintain my own Southern accent and certain speech patterns that I am perfectly aware do not appear in standard English.
Having said that, Joel Chandler Harris was a Southern white man from a certain time and place, and there is no question that some of his perspectives are patronizing and racist.
I include them here because regardless of their shortcomings, they do document important folklore that shouldn’t be lost or ignored, and it’s a free resource of folk culture that represents a significant minority group in the United States.
Aside from political considerations, however, just be aware that the dialect can be a little bit hard to read, but young children will enjoy the stories if read with an adult.
Some of the residual impressions about the Uncle Remus Tales could come from Disney’s handling of the film in the 1940’s; here is a clip discussing the controversy and one of the Academy award winning song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”.
The top clip is explains the issues with the film, and the second clip is of the famous song. If nothing else, the actors in this film deserve more appreciation for the work they did.
European Fairy Tales
Ages 8 and UP
Perrault’s Fairy Tales by Charles Perrault
Charles Perrault wrote down European Fairy Tales that had been collected by others. Keep in mind that they are NOT sanitized for children…they weren’t especially written FOR children…but Perrault does tend to focus on happy endings. Except with “Little Red Riding Hood”.
You will find many of the same stories in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, which were collected across Germany, but the Grimm’s focused more on the punishments that befell wrongdoers, and they could be gruesome. Older kids, if they have been brought up on the “Disney” versions, will probably enjoy seeing what was in the original tales. They also make more sense this way, if you ask me.
I still remember the color fairy tale books from my childhood public library. I remember where they were on the shelf! Each volume, of which the Blue Fairy Book is the first, has an amalgam of fairy tales from different cultures, but Lang does cite his sources.
Even Lang’s retellings, like the other books in this article, are out of copyright now.
Take the time to look around before ordering, especially if you want more than one volume. Individual volumes are free or cost around $1.00US. There are reprints, however, that are running more like $10.00 (ridiculous) and also combined volumes. Be sure to check the version you have to make sure you have a good digitized version, with illustrations, before purchasing, and if you aren’t happy after a purchase, you can go to your “Content” page on Kindle to return the item for a refund.
I’ve also found free versions of these books that DO NOT involve logging in to Amazon. They are nicely hyperlinked and include illustrations and even recordings! (scroll down)
Unlike some of the other collections featured here, Lang’s collections are written for children, so they are a bit sanitized.
The Blue Fairy Book (includes audio recordings)
The Arabian Nights
The stories of the Arabian Nights actually come from India, Turkey, Persia (Iran) as well as the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa. They are some of the most ancient stories that we have. While there have never actually been 1,001 of them, as the frame story goes, there are certainly many more than the ones that most people know, including “Aladdin” and “Sinbad the Sailor.’
The problem with The Arabian Nights is that the stories in their original forms are harsh, violent, and sometimes graphic. Like most folklore, they are not necessarily meant for children.
If you don’t know the frame story, it involves a sultan who is so hurt by his wife’s (sexual) betrayal that after executing her, he decides to deal with the problem by taking a new wife each night and executing her in the morning. If the wife is dead, he reasons, she can’t betray him.
The daughter of his Grand Vizier, or Prime Minister, volunteers as a wife to stop the madness, and she ultimately saves herself and all the young women of the kingdom by entertaining the sultan with stories.
What I really like about this frame story is that it undermines the construct of women, and particularly Arab women, as passive victims. The woman may get the first night because of her sexual desirability, but her brains and charm are what save the day for both herself and her nation.
The Sir Richard Burton version, that appears first, is the definitive English version, but the Andrew Lang version, below, has been softened a bit for children while still maintaining the integrity of the stories.
A full text version of Andrew Lang’s Arabian Nights is available HERE.
Literary Fairy Tales
Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Anderson
Literary fairy tales are stories that have elements of traditional fairy tales that came from the oral tradition but were originally created by the author who wrote them.
Hans Christian Anderson is probably the most famous fairy tale author from European tradition. While Oscar Wilde is famous for a range of work, his fairy tales are also well known.
Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales are appropriate for slightly younger children, starting at about age 8 and up.
Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales were originally published for an audience that included adults. In their original forms, many of them are long and complicated. They can also be very sad.
With younger children, proceed with caution, even if the children “know” the tales; they may have been exposed to sanitized versions that are quite different from the versions Anderson wrote.
In their original forms, I would strongly recommend Anderson’s tales for middle school and even younger high school students. They would probably really enjoy reading the original version of the tales, especially because they might be slightly shocked at times!
If I were at the stage of getting kids into literary analysis, analyzing texts that students already know well is a great way to get them started.
Ages 10 and UP
Hans Christian Anderson
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