Fairytale Basics: The Ugly Duckling

If ever there was a fairytale about bullying, The Ugly Duckling is it. Hans Christian Anderson penned his classic stories beginning in 1835 — about 183 years ago! I decided to read this story to third grade, starting with a traditional version:

I had not read the story in years, and I was shocked at how awful it truly is. Before he even hatched, the mother duck is urged to abandon the larger egg and care for the kids she has. It’s very callus to say the least. I don’t want to get into politics but it reminded me of the idea of flippantly ending an unwanted pregnancy.

Then once he hatches, the mother duck quickly says she thinks he’s ugly. I was glad she stood up for him (slightly) in the barnyard, but the other farm birds pick at him and even his siblings join in. Can you imagine announcing that a child is ugly and then, just because he looked in your direction, smacking him?!? No.

There is more to the story, but suffice to say he is miserable. No one really shows him any affection except maybe the man who rescues him from freezing, and that is short-lived in the man’s chaotic home. The duckling is so utterly cowed and broken emotionally by all of this mistreatment that his is willing to let the beautiful swans kill him. This, of course, is when he realizes that he was a swan all along, and finally feels he has some worth.

It’s about bullying, but I think the message is off. None of the characters truly sees him as worthwhile until he changes over the winter, but the kids and I all think his worth wasn’t in his appearance, or at least it wouldn’t have been if it had been written today.

There are a lot of versions available, I have the book by Cauley (above), and an old Weekly Reader version.

I’d like to get Jerry Pinkney’s version next year.

There are some weird ones out there too:

Yeah, not high on my wish list.

This story does have a great parody to offset the seriousness of the story:

I’ve told you about Willy Clafin and Maynard Moose before. If you buy this one, get the CD, you won’t regret it!

This is a story that would need softening before I’d read it to little kids. I know there are kinder versions out there, but I’m going to keep it in 3rd grade in my school.

Just as a fun aside, the ugly duckling is quite prevalent in our pop culture. I’ll bet you’ve seen a movie or two where the nerdy girl is asked to prom by the cute boy on a dare and when she takes off her thick glasses she magically becomes beautiful.

Disney even made a reference to the story in one of my all-time favorite movies, Lilo and Stitch.

To quote Maynard Moose:

We are all a beautiful something or other…especially you.


Fairy Tale Basics: Humpty Dumpty

To be fair, Humpty Dumpty is a nursery rhyme, but we’re going to lump him in with the Fairy Tales because he was specifically requested by the first grade students. It’s not much of a story, is it?


There are “basic” versions of the story, but they often elaborate beyond this basic verse.  A few examples would be the one by Daniel Kirk and Kim Eagle.

If you are really looking for a fun story that adds to or parodies Humpty, you’re going to want to try one of these:

I have What Really Happened to Humpty? at my school.  It’s a longer story that I wouldn’t use as a read-aloud with first grade.  It’s good though, taking Humpty’s hard-boiled detective brother through the land of nursery rhymes like Miss Muffet, the Three Little Pigs and Chicken Little to find the answer to who pushed Humpty. I think an older kid reading the story would love it. I borrowed Dan Santat’s After the Fall from another school and loved it. Humpty has his big fall and then grounds himself in the name of safety.  But if you have to give up the thing you love best, life isn’t nearly as fun.  Humpty finds a new hobby, paper airplanes that allow him to feel the wind on his face again. My favorite of the stories above is definitely Dave Horowitz’s Humpty Dumpty Climbs Again. After he falls, Humpty enters a funk.  Again, he has had to give up what he loves best.  His friends try to help him but he won’t listen to the spoon (who runs off with a dish). Eventually, Humpty’s courage returns when he is needed to save the day. The kids are going to love this one.  Look at the cover — he’s climbing in his underwear, the kids will laugh just like that little dog did to see such fun…

As you can guess, the story I’m excited to read to the kids has a fair amount of Nursery Rhyme references in it.  I decided to meet those references head-on and pre-read a few nursery rhymes with them.  Most of the kids were familiar with the ones we read, and we covered everything in my book that I was familiar with. The nursery rhymes you and I learned as pre-schoolers, from story books and even cartoons, are just not as common today.  There were some sullen kids who were sure they’d heard them all before, but by the end, they were enjoying my lesson.

By the way, I’m sure you’ve heard people ask where in the rhyme does it ever say that he was an egg?? Well, there is a theory that at one time it was a riddle, and the egg was the answer. Another theory says that it is about an English king who’s army could not stop him from falling from power.  Whatever the true origins are, kids know who Humpty is almost as soon as they see the egg with the face on it.

Oh, and he has a little sister:


Building the hoard

It’s almost here! Our town’s Friends of the Library has a big sale once a year where people can donate books, books, books and hoarders, er, collectors like myself can snag gems for incredible bargains.

The Book Wyrm image seemed fitting, since dragons hoard priceless treasures.

Yes, sometimes my old books smell funny, or are in extremely delicate condition, but they are special to me. I only buy books that I love, so most are ones I’ve read more than once already.

And the best part is that this year I have another hoarder going with me. I like kids books but she prefers young adult. We might have to duke it out over a book or two, but for the most part, we’re a good team. And don’t worry, I’ll do what I have to to get the books I want.

Fairytale Basics: Hansel and Gretel

Of all the fairytales I’ll be covering, I find this one the most disturbing. The story typically follows the theme where the poverty stricken parents choose to abandon their children in the dark forest, and the children find their way to a gingerbread house where a witch imprisons them with the intent to fatten them up and eat them.

This is truly dark stuff! I always reassure my students that their parents would never ever consider abandoning them – that parents would starve themselves rather than let their children go hungry. But I’m going to be brutally honest here: history has shown that parents haven’t always thought that way. There are accounts of parents murdering their children during extreme famines, either to cannibalize or at least to trade to another family so neither has to eat their own children. The rationale that historians give for this way of thinking is that childhood mortality was quite low, and the parents could fend for themselves (as opposed to young children) and would eventually have more children to replace them. Many ancient cultures did not see children below certain ages as “people” yet, so maybe it made it easier to make these hard decisions.

Whatever the thinking, this is one of those classics that has left an indelible mark on our culture.

I’m going to start 1st grade off with the James Marshall version:

I imagine they will already have the basics of the story in their minds. We will follow up with a fun one, again from Corey Rosen Schwartz:

I don’t have a title picked to read to 2nd grade, but I did go ahead and read the Rika Lesser retelling with marvelous classical illustrations by Paul Zelinsky:

I asked the class for a volunteer to tell me the story quickly from memory. I was quite surly when one of our ESL students, who emigrated from India, was able to tell me the story. They did notice that Hansel and Gretel were left in the woods twice – most thought it was just once, and the differences in the makeup of the house. Most kids say candy or gingerbread but in this version the house is made of loaves of bread with sugar windows and pancakes for shingles on the roof.

There are a lot of different versions of this story available, and here are a few that I have at school:

This whole series is popular at my school! Nice third grade level picture books.

This is part of a whole series of early chapters that present three versions of each story from around the world.

I love Neil Gaiman, and the dark black and white brushstroke illustrations in this retelling really give a sinister feeling to the forest.

This is the first book in Adam Gidwitz’s trilogy. I have had it on my “to read” list for too long.

I didn’t realize this was a retelling until I did some online research. I brought it home right away when I figured it out.

Another very notable retelling if this story is by Garth Nix. It’s called Hansel’s Eyes and can be found in a short story collection:

If I found the original story disturbing, then this version horrified and terrified me. The story is in modern times and the witch doesn’t want to eat the children, she plans to harvest their organs. I don’t know why this scares me more than cannibalism, but it does. You can read a great write-up on it here at Through the Twisted Woods.

And just for fun, click here to watch Bugs Bunny’s attempt at Hansel and Gretel.

Fairytale Basics: Red Riding Hood

I’m going to be writing a series of posts about fairytales, nursery rhymes and fables. The reason for this is that the teachers in the 3rd grade rooms have noticed a considerable lack of knowledge of what most Americans would consider the “basics”. You can’t expect students to compare and contrast a modern story to fairytales they’re unfamiliar with. And we’re not talking obscure ones; it’s the ones most of us grew up with. Often if the kids do know the story, they know the happy-smiling-Bird-singing Disney version. So, I came up with a plan to help.

The plan is pretty simple. Introduce the basic stories in 1st grade (usually not the full original gory versions), then reinforce with a fun version. The next year they will hear another story that expands on or parodies the original. And in 3rd grade, we can with read a fractured version or if possible, the oldest most detailed one I can find.

So today I’ll share with you the first in our experimental plan: Red Riding Hood.

James Marshall’s many fairytale retellings are illustrated in funny ways (there were 9 cats in Red Riding Hood’s kitchen and they all looked like they were up to no good), but they tell the basic story. Now my 1st graders were sure they knew this story but most were outraged that the wolf eats Red in this version….hmmmm, maybe they don’t know it as well as they think.

Since the first book was pretty short, I followed it up with Corey Rosen Schwartz’s retelling. The wolf earns a black belt, sure it will make it easier to prey on the weak, but wouldn’t you know, Red has a black belt too. This is part of a series that includes the Three Little Pigs and Hansel & Gretel (so we will talk about them later.)

My 2nd graders loved Diane and Christyan Fox’s book. The cat (who I think is a library teacher in disguise) attempts to read the story of Little Red Riding Hood to the dog, who asks A LOT of questions. Granted, they make sense, which makes it even funnier, but I truly empathize with the cat as it loses its patience.

In 3rd grade, the kids got to watch the Scholastic DVD if Ed Young’s Lon Po Po.

I chose the video because it presents the illustrations (that won the Caldecott) beautifully, and I like the actor’s voices. The kids liked it a lot but were surprised that it wasn’t more like the European version they are used to. It even reminded us of The Three Little Pigs a little.

Those are the versions I plan to use, but I also put out multiple versions of the story -and quite a few other tales- mixing them with chapter books, picture books, graphic novels and middle grade novels.

Not sure why this one appeals? Look at the artwork! Sybille Schenker’s paper it’s are breathtaking!

Grown-Up books!

One of the drawbacks to having a friend who loves to read as much as I do is that she takes me to dangerous places like libraries and book clubs. Thanks a lot, Southern Today Gone Tomorrow.

She invited me along to her book club last week and I figured I could handle one grown up book a month (I am swamped with plenty of other projects with deadlines). Before we went back to the meeting, we stopped to say hi to some of my old coworkers at the desk and damned if I didn’t walk away with two books before even getting the book club book!

Conversation with my old coworkers turned toAbraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter of all things. It was a great book and I enjoyed the movie.

I was shocked when the librarian told me there was a second book!!! Well, I had to have it. I really liked how Seth Grahame-Smith wove the fiction into the real history of Lincoln’s sad life. My library friend said the second book follows Henry, Abraham’s friend (and vampire) through major events in American history.

Again, I’m pointing out that libraries are dangerous places. In the process of grabbing The Last American Vampire I happened to see Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy on the next shelf down.

Except there were 4 books!!

Now, not everyone enjoys zombies. Or even post-apocalyptic books, but this series is amazing. Grant’s characters are well conceived and the entire post-rising world she has created is well thought out and intelligently written. There are plenty of suspense, conspiracies and espionage along with the zombies–but the books are not overly gorey or hyper-focused on the weaponry. To say I was ecstatic about Feedback is putting it lightly. I’m going to have to read her Parasite series ASAP.

And finally, yes, we made it to the book club. I didn’t get to read last month’s selection, but the discussion makes me think I should.

This month we are reading The Alice Network about a female spy ring during World War 1. It’s not my typical style, but isn’t that what book clubs are for?

I have finished Feedback and plan to start The Alice Network next…along with some family related projects, crochet for commissions and friends, and preparing for two children’s literature classes this summer. Libraries are dangerous places.

Presidents Day

Presidents Day is a day in America where we celebrate the great leaders of our past. It’s a time that I really enjoy sharing fun stories about these great men (and someday women), that the kids don’t expect.

I read presidential stories to more than one grade level, but these are my favorite stories.

The second grade students love this rhyming story about how George Washington lost all of his teeth. I always ask before we read what the kids know about his teeth, and most say that his false teeth were wooden. We find out in the book though, that his teeth were carved from hippo ivory. They were probably uncomfortable though, and I’ve read online that they were stained with Washington’s favorite drink.

I need to read up on it more, but while looking for this image, I saw an article where the claim was made that Washington’s false teeth came from his slaves. As I said, that idea deserves further research.

We also enjoy George Washington’s Birthday, where some of the common misconceptions about George are dispelled. No, he did not cut down the cherry tree.

A fan favoritewith the kids is President Taft Is Stuck In the Bath by Mac Barnett.

Most kids have never heard of Taft, but they love this outrageous story, perfectly illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. It’s a fun story because we don’t know if it’s true. It’s a fun way to reinforce the point that if we weren’t there in person, we just don’t know.

Teddy Roosevelt was another great president, whom we have to thank for the creation of our National Parks system. The kids enjoy the book The Camping Trip That Changed America and Teedie as well as other books about this colorful family man.

We read a lot about Abraham Lincoln, our school being named after him, so I like to read books to them about parts of his life they may not know s lot about.

I adore Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek by Deborah Hopkinson, and the kids appreciate the story Robert Burleigh tells in Abraham Lincoln Comes Home.

I also tell them about the sadder parts of Lincoln’s story, his sons.

I don’t do a lot of other specific presidents, but I display as much as I can. Sadly, I don’t own a book on every president yet. I need to write a grant to buy a new set.

Whether you agree with a presidents policies or not, it is a huge job to become the commander in chief. The kids learned that when we read, If I Were President. I explained it like this:

It’s not easy to make everyone happy. Let’s say You are president of Mrs. O’s room. You have to buy 1 pizza to make all of the kids happy. Some only want cheese. Some can’t live without pepperoni, and some want vegetables too. Oh, and there’s always that one kid that wants tacos instead. Not so easy after all.