The Editorial: thoughts, short stories
or essays about the world of cinema
Talking about the book Fantastic Mr. Fox, on which he based his film by the same name, Wes Anderson said in the book-length interviews with Matt Zoller Seitz: “Roald Dahl really did have a knack for seeing from a child’s point of view. The details he focuses on and vividly describes are just the ones that might most fully and directly capture a child’s attention and inspire a child’s imagination. Or it might just be that his books show a true interest in the things that make children laugh and frighten them. He never particularly held himself back from the extremely scary or disgusting things. He had such a broad imagination and would turn some real-life inspiration into something fabulous. He also had this tremendous facility with inventing characters, and he could just weave a plot that was real.”
Continuing to talk about Dahl, Zoller Seitz tells an incredulous Anderson how Dahl is not persisting, and that he senses on the part of other parents a bit of hesitancy in exposing kids to the author’s books in America because there’s a whole movement toward making the world of childhood as comfortable, bright, and cheery a place as it can possibly be, and Dahl is the opposite of that.
Really? Asks Anderson, more and more surprised by what he hears.
Really? I am asking, too.
Unfortunately, yes. Zoller Seitz is not the only one who has noticed this movement. Parents have started to stop reading traditional tales to their children because they are considered too scary, violent or because they discriminate women or certain minorities. And I want to ask: Where exactly is this censorship going? What are they reading to them instead? Only new fiction written especially to accommodate every opinion, carefully composed so that it does not offend anybody? This is not art, it is not artistic expression, it is not imaginative literature, it does not ignite children’s imagination, it does not teach them right from wrong, it does not broaden their minds. Quite the contrary. And I think it’s one of the greatest wrongs we can do to our children.
Old-school fairy tales — stories by authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde, Grimm Brothers, CS Lewis, J.M Barrie, or Andrew Lang — are filled with a richness and complexity that is often missing from the modern-day children’s books. I know. I have been reading my three-and-a-half-year-old son both classic and modern children’s books and there is not much that makes my mind wander off when I read modern books to him. The language is so less complex and captivating. My son also asks a lot fewer questions and about a lot fewer new words than when he hears a traditional fairy tale. And just to make it clear (and I believe it’s a pity that we’ve come to a time when we have to explain these things), Hans Christian Andersen didn’t write “The Little Mermaid” to teach little girls how to marry a prince, but to warn us that our actions have consequences. I have read that “Snow White” is considered discriminatory to dwarfs. What part of the story exactly does that, may I ask? It’s from fairy tales that I learned, as a child, that there are all kinds of physical diversities; fairy tales have taught me not to judge based on class provenance, physical appearance or cultural differences. There are so many layers in a fairy tale that help you understand human kind and ourselves. A child can see both the mystery and truth in such stories. As Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller explained, “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”
Let’s stop being so politically correct, for God’s sake! For the good of our children! Fairy tales nurture moral behaviour and show children the strengths and weaknesses inherent in human nature, by contrasting good and evil, rich and poor, vanity and valour. By exposing children to these stereotypes of good and bad, you provide them with a moral code on which to start to develop their own lives.
Yes, fairy tales may tackle difficult issues, but they prepare kids for life in the real world, they teach them to deal with inner dilemmas, they teach them not to shut their feelings in. Like life, some fairy tales don’t have happy endings. Bad things do happen. Children must learn that life comes with good and bad, with joy and sadness, with growth and loss. We must read stories with our kids, of all kinds, and talk about them. As C. S. Lewis believed, “sometimes fairy stories say best what needs to be said.”
A few months back, my son was treated badly by an older boy in the park. I wasn’t with him, my husband was. He didn’t cry or seemed affected in any disturbing way, but he was surprised that another child could treat him badly. I was worried about the incident and didn’t know how exactly to handle it when we talked about it at home, wondering if I should try to find a plausible explanation for the ugly behaviour of the other kid. That his parents did not teach him how to behave, that’s not a plausible explanation. I then talked to my parents. “Stop trying to control what you can not control and stop trying to protect him and telling him life is always beautiful and cheerful,” they said. “It’s not. It’s good for him to know that people are good and bad and that he is not one of the bad. Take it as a lesson. If you seek to protect him from all unpleasant events, you do not equip him to deal with the real world.” Of course, they are right.
Fairy tales also allow kids to learn how to deal with scary situations. Kids see how the characters face their fears and learn from their experiences. They help children to understand the flaws of human behaviour and their own emotional dilemmas and to accept many of their own fears and emotions, without developing frustrations, in an imaginative way.
But I guess the most extraordinary thing about fairy tales is that they introduce children to the genre of fantasy. Fairy tales help develop their creativity and imagination. That’s one of the most precious things a child has and we should foster that imagination from as early on to as later on in their lives as possible. “When we are no longer children, we are already dead.” (Constantin Brâncuși).
Furthermore, fairy tales pave the road for more reading later on in their lives. The human kind has no future without culture and education. Let’s start by continuing to read to our children as much as possible, and to read them classic fairy tales. They’ll be alright.
image from “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) | illustrations by Quentin Blake