What if the prince and princess didn't live happily ever after? What if a certain wolf claimed an illness had caused him to decimate a trio of pigs? What if Cinderella had a double who was a liberated woman of the 20th century?
These what-ifs are sometimes the first inkling children have that the same themes can come in different packages. Altering familiar story lines and tinkering with much-loved characters are just some of the ways modern authors inject satire, parody and irony into classic children's literature.
Fairy tales have found renewed life in spin-offs and twists that allow new generations of readers to see old favorites in a different light. Often irreverent, these stories provide a buoyant touch to otherwise earnest morality lessons that are so often the backbone of childhood storytimes.
Turning a tale on its head and every which way can disrupt childhood expectations. Perhaps that's why the book jacket for "Tales From the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird" by Vivian Vande Velde gives readers ample warning: "How to Fracture a Fairy Tale - 1. Make the villain a hero. 2. Make the hero a villain. 3. Tell what really happened. 4. All of the Above."
Contemporary renditions of "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Cinderella," for example, morph the heroines into tough cowgirls and Caribbean princesses. In these variations, lessons are not forgotten, merely rerouted or redressed in different clothes.
"[Fairy tales] have withstood the test of time, but the updated versions extend their appreciation and show kids that these stories can change and evolve," says Helen Sparks, children's librarian at the Taneytown Branch of the Carroll County Public Library system.
Recently, Sparks featured three such updated fairy tales in her afternoon reading program, "Tales Your Mother Never Told You." Stories included "Little Red Cowboy Hat" by Susan Lowell, "The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza)" by Philemon Sturges and "The Principal's New Clothes" by Stephanie Calmenson.
The children laughed uproariously, mad-libbing adjectives and nouns into their own original creations. "This is a crazy way to make a fractured fairy tale," Sparks says, urging them on. Next up, nursery rhyme twists such as "Three Myopic Rodents" (in place of "Three Blind Mice") that further convey how themes stay the same even though the stories don't.
"The new versions fit our modern culture. Words and values are transmitted and updated for the children of today," says Sparks.
As part of an after-reading activity, each child has the chance to illustrate a new ending for Mr. Bundy, the protagonist of "The Principal's New Clothes."
Nicholas Galinaitis, age 9, orchestrated his own violent rendering of the Emperor's New Clothes. "My Mr. Bundy is a bloody mess," says Galinaitis, who transforms the beleaguered schoolmaster into a casualty of war.
Rewriting endings is nothing new for the Taneytown youngster, who's encouraged to do the same thing at home. "I like the `Tortoise and Hare,'" he says. "I didn't like the ending of the story, but my aunt told me that I could change the ending, that stories change all the time."
Another favorite who's getting a facelift is Cinderella, who will be featured in no fewer than six new picture books this fall. Of them all, Robert San Souci's "Cinderella Skeleton" may top the list of bizarre parallels. Publishers Weekly recently dubbed it the "Fairytale that Best Embodies the Concept of `Fractured'" - perhaps because its thoroughly disembodied heroine hobbles about after the ball without her foot bone. The missing bone - rather than the more typical glass slipper - has been rescued by the prince, who duly takes it from house to house looking for a match.
Modern audiences are more accepting of such extreme possibilities. Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith give The Big Bad Wolf a voice in "The True Story of The 3 Little Pigs!" In this flashback version of those fateful events, Alexander T. Wolf begins his side of the story sympathetically enough. He was just the good grandson making his granny a cake and in search of a cup of sugar from his neighbors. Then, he recounts how his bad cold forces him to continually sneeze and blow houses down, to eat the pigs killed in the housing collapse and to unfairly end up in jail.
Scieszka is the king of this sub-genre, following up his wolf's defense with "The Frog Prince Continued," in which the less-than-charming Prince can't get any satisfaction from his fickle Mrs. And after that came, "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," which received a Caldecott Honor medal.
"I hope to be the anti-Disney," says Scieszka.
When he and Smith were trying to find a publisher for "The True Story of The 3 Little Pigs!" they ran into a wall of resistance. "We were told it was too sophisticated, too dark, both the text and Lane's illustrations," he says.