Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 12, 2010

Helpful Little Ducks

In my Children’s Literature class, we do a swift overview of fairy tales, whose imagery and structures are often reflected or twisted in contemporary writing. One student, for instance, introduced me to the “Little Cinder” by Jeannine Hall Gailey In this poem a phoenix rises from the ashes Cinderella swept, changing everything, and it seems the prince was as attracted to her heat as much as anything else. May reflected on other Cinderella imagery, and suggested that those fragile glass slippers, too easily shattered, offered a definition of womanhood itself, a definition which she rejects.

In Tree and Leaf, Tolkien reminds us “Collections of fairy-stories are, in fact, by nature attics and lumber-rooms, only by temporary and local custom play-rooms.” Hansel and Gretel may be one of the most contested tales re whether or not it should be told to children. Ryan’s paper compared two versions of Grimm’s tale. He found the 1810 version stark and harsh, with none of the characters named, no dialog, and nothing to cloud that this was a story of child abandonment and abuse. In later editions, details were changed or added and endings grew happier and more instructive. A version published in 1848 gave Hansel and Gretel names and dialog was included. Often this sort of personalization make us feel closer, so the violence hurts more. This doesn’t seem to be the case here, partly because we stay with the children who don’t judge the parents. And Ryan mentions the particular details that distract. Ducks help the children cross the river. We get to focus on these friendly chatting guides across the water.

The communion with animals is one of my favorite parts of fairy tales. But this paper really made me think: thank you, Ryan! When do we want pretty ducks in our stories? When should we just let the river stay wild?

I like Anne Sexton’s gritty not-for-children takes on fairy tales in her Transformation, and I’m eager to read more poems by Jeannine Hall Gailey. For some perhaps more romantic poems – I am aware Valentine’s Day is coming – please visit the Poetry Friday roundup at:



  1. I have a visceral reaction to “Hansel and Gretel”–probably because my early life reminds me of it. Who did that wonderful painting? I feel I know it but can’t think who did it. Those trees . . . I know those trees . . .

  2. Yes, it’s a pretty creepy story. Even as a kid I remember thinking that candy house was not going to be worth it.
    I snagged the picture off the internet with no source given, but I’m pretty sure those trees belong to Wanda Gag, who gorgeously illustrated Grimm. And of course Millions of Cats.

  3. That’s it! I knew I knew it. I may have that book somewhere. If not, I’ll going to find it. Thanks!

  4. Sounds like a very thoughtful paper! Makes me think of some of the 18th and 19th illustrations Maria Tatar shows in Enchanted Hunters, where fairy tales become the province of children, and somehow become almost scarier as a result, at least at first.
    One of my favorite themes in fairy tales is the transformation of animals into humans and vice versa. Swans into maidens and princes into frogs and bears… such magic.

  5. I liked Enchanted Hunters very much, and am trying to remember the theme you mentioned. I fear I missed too much of what she had to say. I know I’m going to have to pick it up again.
    And yes, those animal to human to animal transformations really tug at the heart and soul. A bit like the magic we try to do with words.

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