Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 28, 2010

Once Upon a Time: Maria Tatar on Fairy Tales and Childhood

On Saturday I heard Maria Tatar, who chairs the Department of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard College, give a talk at the Eric Carle Museum She’s author most recently of Enchanted Hunters and edited several Norton Critical Editions of tales from Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson (she’s a fan and made me one), and others. My children’s literature class covers a few hundred years, so we only do a drive-by past fairy tales, but we always look at these. Of course these hefty, heavily footnoted anthologies are intended for adults, so Maria Tatar doesn’t try to brush any of the sex and more often violence under the table. But they’d be a valuable resource for parents or other story-tellers. Maria Tatar noted in her talk that “you can’t grow up just with facts.” She said even incidents in the tales that may seem appalling to us may be made child-friendly by the teller. There’s always the lap, and beyond that, tellers may change their voices, raise their eyebrows, act things out to make them humorous, or even add commentary. The tone and setting may be as important as the tale.

Maria gave us a great, swift, and accessible overview of current definitions of fairy tales, with theories on their background and worth, pointing out elements of magic, myth, metaphors, and the migratory nature of the tales. The alliteration is hers. “These stories pass time and they pass along wisdom, making clear what matters in life.”

She showed slides, focusing on a picture book of Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger, whose exhibition at the Carle just ended. When a librarian in the audience asked for suggestions for parents who balk at checking out fairy tales, Maria noted that about 40% of parents today say they won’t read Little Red Riding Hood. She said “children need more than pink princesses and sweet endings,” and pointed out that stories keep children curious and benefit parents, too. They may learn, through the child’s response, about them, their joys, fears, and needs.

On another note, for those feeling Carle museum love, or want to look at some cool illustrations – and maybe even hang one in your home — check out the website where you can make a maximum bid on a piece by favorite illustrators like Jerry Pinckney, Grace Lin, Quentin Blake, Raul Colon, of course Eric Carle and about a dozen others. Click on the link below for a look. All proceeds benefit the museum, and bids will be accepted until noon on Thursday, Sept. 30.



  1. I bet the talk was marvelous. I’d love to visit that museum.
    (Here in Frankfurt is the Struwwelpeter museum, for Germany’s most famous and influential picture book–tons of influence on all the development of PBs.)

  2. I hope you get to the Carle one of these days, but the Struwelpeter sounds wonderful, too!
    Good luck with your queries going out!

  3. Once Upon a Time
    Hi Jeannine ~ Sorry I missed her. One of my early ms is an original fairy tale I wrote in grad school, and with Maggie’s illustrations, submitted as a final project to a reading k-8 course. I’ve been revising it ever since and am determined to find a home for it!

  4. Maria Tatar *and* Lisbeth Zwergers art?!
    I expect you can hear my huge sigh of regret all the way across the Atlantic.

  5. Re: Once Upon a Time
    It was a really engaging talk. And as always I love your determination!

  6. Oh, Amy, I do hear your sigh. I’ve long admired Maria Tatar’s work on the page, and hearing her speak with such passion and intelligence in person was truly something to behold. Is Sweatpea a Lisbeth Zwerger fan?

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