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!

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.

Groundhogs Day

For Americans, and Canadians, it seems, there is no better predictor for spring than a groundhog and his shadow. Yeah, it’s a bit sketchy, but it’s s fun tradition that would be difficult to find offense in, so we get to have fun with it at school. The kids predicted whether or not Phil would see his shadow, and I found a lot of fun books to share with them. Truth be told, there aren’t a ton of great lower-grade groundhog stories available, but here is what I found:

I have kindergarten twice each week so I started the week with simple nonfiction about groundhogs and shadows.

Then for their second class, they got to watch a Peep and the Big Wide World episode where Peep, Chirp and Quack teach a young groundhog about shadows. You can watch it here.

First grade got to come twice this last week too, so first we read The Black Rabbit about a rabbit who is scared of his own shadow.

There was time to spare so I also read Moonbear’s Shadow by Frank Asch to them.

They loved Moonbear, so I think I’ll find other ways to work his stories in. I didn’t read to them as kindergarteners so they aren’t familiar with him.

For their Friday class, we read a really fun book about a little girl groundhog who doesn’t act like the rest of the groundhogs in her family.

Phyllis wants to be a Punxsutawney Phil, like her uncle, but she is told that Phil is always a fellow.

Phyllis doesn’t deny her instincts though, and one cold day in February, she realizes an early spring is coming, even though Uncle Phil misses the signs.

I really liked this book. I am excited because she has a second book about another hard-to-find holiday: April Fools Day.

We had a couple of minutes after we read about Phyllis so we decided to learn some facts about groundhogs from Gail Gibbons. If you aren’t familiar with her picture-book nonfiction titles, you should go find them!

We learned that groundhogs are also called woodchucks, they live about 3-5 years and there are other groundhog weather predictors besides Phil.

  • Chuck Wood lives in Los Angelos
  • Unadilla Bill lives in Unadilla, Nebraska
  • Sir Walter Wally lives in Raleigh, North Carolina
  • General Lee lives in Atlanta, Georgia

There are many more, as I found in this article from Time magazine.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and it may seem that I’m late writing about it, but I spent the whole week reading great stories about the Civil Rights Movement to my students.

The third grade students really enjoyed the story of MLK’s childhood, written by his sister Christine.

Martin, or M.L., Christine and their younger brother A.D. were good kids, but they played some great pranks.

Christine King Farris tells a funny story about how she and her brothers used to dangle a fur stole in front of unsuspecting passersby, and a few others. My students loved learning that M.L. Was a kid just like them. The book takes a sadder turn when Christine explains how the boys lost two very good friends, simply because they were white. M.L. turned to his mother for an explanation:

Because they just don’t understand that everyone is the same, but someday it will be better.

Mother Dear, one day I am going to turn this world upside down.

Christine tells the only firsthand account of Martin’s childhood and how it led him to his ultimate path, changing the world. My students loved this book, and were quite interested to hear that Christine King Farris is still alive and is in her 90s.

The Civil Rights movement was more than just MLK and his speeches and marches. The first grade read a book about a little boy who sees firsthand the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

The boy and his mother are already at the back of the bus on this fateful day. He tells how Mrs. Parks is at the front and how she quietly refused to move. The boy describes the feeling of everyone on the bus being angry, maybe just at Mrs. Parks, or maybe at all the colored riders. (I use that term because the boy uses it. I did explain to kids that different words were used at different times, but they have fallen out of style, especially if they develop a negative connotation.) By the end of the book, the boy who started out thinking he needed to hide, now feels a new inner resolve to never let anyone make him feel that way again.

I had not originally planned to read a Civil Rights book to second grade, but at the last minute, I decided on I Am Martin Luther King, Jr. from Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change the World series.

This book has a fun side, with Martin always wearing his suit and mustache, even as a child. It spans his life, telling how he followed the teachings of Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi. The kids were excited to learn that I have biographies of Gandhi and Rosa Parks from the same series. As I’ve written about before, this series has a fun comic style that really draws kids in.

I did not read the next two books to classes, but I would consider adding them next year:

My students were shocked to learn that children were not exempt from mistreatment. Ruby Bridges has rocks thrown at her (and worse), the children trying to attend high school had fire hoses turned on them as well as attack dogs, and children like Audrey Faye Hendricks were arrested and jailed just for wanting equal rights.

The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t just for African Americans. At the time, women in America had to fight for their rights and disabled citizens were treated as lesser beings. This great movement had amazing leaders like MLK, who gave their lives to bring necessary changes to our country.

We are still a nation in the process of changing. Today we hear, on a regular basis, debates about the rights of the homosexual – LGBT – and transgender citizens. We also hear about immigrants and how they are not always welcomed in this great land, built on the idea of coming to America to live the “American dream.”

I hope I have helped inspire my students to do their part to turn this world upside down.

Thrifting Gold!

This weekend I was invited by a new friend to go to the next town over to shop. She’s a certified book nerd, and maybe a hoarder, but I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

We went into a pawn shop that had what was essentially a thrift store in the basement. After looking at two rooms of Knick-knacks and kitchen items we found a room full of books!! There were some really old ones that we had to peak at:

And then a few that are probably from my childhood:

I know my family owned this book. I should have bought it. If it is there the next time I visit, I’m grabbing it!

I bought a few books for my school,

Look! A new Eric A. Kimmel!!

I also bought a book that I had as a kid, it’s in rough shape but it’s worth it:

I was so excited about finding this! I remember doing every one of these tricks.

Chief Lelooska

When I went to the thrift store the other day, I actually found a second treasure (not just the Little Golden Book treasury.) The second treasure was a book of Native American stories from the Pacific Northwest.

Chief Lelooska was an accomplished storyteller and artist, and his books are gorgeously illustrated in his tribe’s style.

The book caught my eye because I had just read Raven by Gerald McDermott to my second grade classes.

McDermott’s story is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the traditions of the Pacific Northwest. Chief Lelooska’s stories are not long, or complicated. They are perfect for children.

I do not yet have Lelooska’s other book but I think I can pick it up online.

Men and women like Lelooska are cultural treasures that are fading from our modern lives. I would love to find a storyteller from this area, Dakota or Lakota, to come and share this style of storytelling that is ancient and yet so different to the majority of Americans.

You can learn more about Lelooska at this site.