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Continuing our fairytales campaign!

Buy Cinderella of the Nile
Buy The Phoenix of Persia
Buy Quill Soup
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Tiny Owl have published, and continue to publish, many fairytale and folk tale retellings from around the world in our One Story, Many Voices series. We think fairytales and folk tales should be preserved as they help to convey important messages for children, but only if they’re in keeping with modern values. (We’ve previously discussed this issue in our blog ‘Are fairytales still relevant today?‘) That’s why we’re launching a campaign to promote the importance of reading traditional stories from different cultures, and to consider ways that we can update them for contemporary readers. We’re interviewing experts to hear their views!

James Mayhew

We started with brilliant interviews from authors Elizabeth Laird and Pippa Goodhart. Next, we spoke to author and illustrator James Mayhew!

What was your favourite fairytale or folk tale as a child?

Either the Little Mermaid or The Snow Maiden (The Russian folk tale). Both end similarly, with the heroines melting away… I was always drawn to the melancholic and wistful nature of those stories, I found that more satisfying than the easy “Happy Ever After”. People often talk about “Fairy Tale Endings”, but in fact, there are many fairy tales and folk tales that do not end especially happily. Modern, simplified versions of stories have given us a false idea of these tales. I also loved the visual world of these two tales in particular – the under-sea kingdom, and the snowy forests of Russia. Both filled my head with wonderful pictures!

Why do you think it’s important for children to read fairytales?

Because these are fabulous stories, the best of which excite and thrill and satisfy, because of their structure and often powerful messages! It’s also so important for children to explore difficult themes, like stepmothers or sibling rivalry, or death and love, in the metaphorical world of fairytales. There, anything can happen, and really quite difficult themes can be touched on, and left behind. We all come away from these stories asking questions and wondering exactly what was meant. That ambiguity invites discussion, conversation, or even just analysis in our own minds. I think that’s very healthy, far better than simplistic storytelling, and just hiding fears away inside. Perhaps, today, the biggest reason for reading these tales today is the multi-cultural views they provide. Whether it’s Scheherazade in Persia, or Jack and the Beanstalk in England, it’s a revealing glimpse of other lands, other traditions, other lives, and allows an empathetic connection to start growing.

How can we update fairytales to fit with modern values?

Many folk or fairy tales feature things which are unacceptable to modern sensibilities. The tales are heteronormative, and often treat people from other cultures badly, and imply ugliness or disability represents evil. We know better than that. I think to update them, we first need go back in time, to look at original, more authentic sources, rather than rely on modern, diluted adaptations. The idea of that perfect “Happy Ending” is very often a Victorian, moral interpretation, with a particular agenda attached, or something conjured in a Disney film. I think, by looking at older sources, it is possible to explore in more depth what the stories were really telling us. We may then wish to subvert that in some way, or simplify it. But it can be done with more authority if we have a deeper knowledge of the tales. Beyond that, we can simply create “new tales from old” (to paraphrase Aladdin). Storytelling isn’t frozen in time. We can take themes and characters and tell new stories, in new ways. A lot has changed since these tales were first told by the fireside. Perhaps it’s time to rekindle that fire, and tell them anew.

James Mayhew is a children’s author and illustrator who has created many beloved books including Katie, Ella Bella and Mouse and Mole, Gaspard the Fox, and Koshka’s Tales.

  • Read a review by Reading Zone: Cinderella of the Nile is woven with hopeful words
  • Read a blog: Discover the folk tale behind Quill Soup: Stone Soup!
  • Read an interview with the author Alan Durant: Quill Soup is a story for everyone!

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