Once Upon A Time Fairy tales or scary tales? Some publishers tame the classics

April 30, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

"TC Think fairy tales are just kid stuff -- innocuous stories that tykes can get all warm and fuzzy about? Consider the following:

* In Jacksonville, Fla., the school system has banned "Snow White" for students in kindergarten through second grade after a parent complained the story gave her child nightmares. One passage that the parent particularly objected to read this way:

"And when a young boar suddenly sprang into view, the hunter stabbed him, removed his lungs and liver, and brought them to the Queen. She had them salted and cooked, and the wicked woman ate them up, believing she had eaten Snow White's liver and lungs."

* An English scholar of the work of Hans Christian Andersen is incensed by recent versions of the Danish writer's fairy tales, including publishers' editing changes of his own translations. Glyn Jones noted that in his translation of "The Nightingale," his English and American publishers changed a reference in the opening sentence from "Chinaman" to "Chinese," and complained about several other changes he's seen in Andersen's writing throughout the years, including tacking on happy endings to such works as "The Little Mermaid."

Those weaned on the Technicolor, cuddle-and-burp Disney versions of fairy tales might find this sort of controversy surprising. But it's clear that hundreds of years after many of them were written, or written down from oral stories that were handed down for generations before that, fairy tales remain a source of power and inspiration -- and even fear.

When noted photographer William Wegman was thinking about doing a children's book, he ultimately chose to recast "Cinderella" by posing his now-famous Weimaraner dogs in all the roles. His decidedly unorthodox version was recently published to mostly favorable reviews and is selling briskly, according to his publisher, Hyperion.

"I loved fairy tales when I was young, particularly the scary ones, like the Grimm Brothers," Mr. Wegman said from his studio in New York. He says he's already finished photographing his next book, based on "Little Red Riding Hood," which is scheduled to be released this fall.

Almost every month, versions of classic fairy tales are reissued -- sometimes with the original text faithfully retained, sometimes changed. For instance, Picture Book Studios, a children's-book publisher, has scheduled for this spring an edition of "The Nightingale," plus book/cassette packages of "Paul Bunyan" and The Three Little Pigs." Henry Holt is releasing "The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde" and "The Tortoise and the Hare and Other Favorite Fables." And Chronicle Books has published "Aesop's Fables" and "Fairy Tales From Hans Christian Andersen," the latter a publisher castigated by Mr. Jones, the Andersen scholar, for textual changes.

Artistic interests aside, there's a good reason for this interest in fairy tales: They are a proven money-maker. "Generally speaking, you can't go wrong with fairy tales," said Jeff Capshew, vice president of sales for Simon & Schuster children's books. "If it's a well-done package and it's nice-looking, you can do really well with them."

Although he would not disclose specific figures, he did say that two of the publisher's best-sellers, "The Treasury of Bedtime Stories" and "The Treasury of Mother Goose," have each sold "into six figures" during their seven years in print.

Regina Wade, the assistant head of the Children's Room at the Pratt Library, often uses fairy tales in storytelling sessions.

"Especially around 8, 9 years old, children need them, because fairy tales provide a place where they can examine their fears and make moral choices within the safe framework of the story," Ms. Wade said. "Some parents may say, 'This is terrible, this is violent,' but the stories are on a high moral level. Children that age are wrestling with the questions of good and evil. They like the absolute clarity -- witches are evil, and so forth. That's what they want."

Well, not everybody.

Andrew Clements, an editor at Picture Book Studios, got a letter last week from the mother of a young child. She was complaining about Picture Book's publication of Andersen's "The Red

Shoes."

In the fairy tale, a young girl named Karen is told she cannot wear her flashy red shoes at church. When she does, they magically force her to dance incessantly, and she finally begs the town executioner to chop off her feet so that she can have some peace. Andersen wrote that, upon repenting, "Her heart was so overfilled with the sunshine, with peace, and with joy, that it broke. Her soul flew with the sunshine to heaven, and no one there asked about the red shoes."

"The woman wrote, 'Don't you realize the damage you do when you present the story such as "The Red Shoes," which teaches girls to be submissive, which has a harsh view of God?' " said Mr. Clements from his office in Saxonville, Mass.

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