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April 13, 2015

Real Things Vs. Fairytales - Guest Post by Liesl Shurtliff

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Liesl Shurtliff knows a thing or two about fairytales…her first book, RUMP, goes behind the scenes of Rumpelstiltskin, and her latest, JACK: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk, shares a new take on the classic story of a curious boy and a world full of giants.

In the blog post below, she parses out the difference between “real things” and “fairytales”…and it’s not as big as you’d think. 


As a child, I was what many would call a “reluctant reader.” Looking back, though, I’d say I wasn’t so much reluctant as extremely picky. I had no patience for slow beginnings or flat characters. I wasn’t interested in reading about “real things,” which is probably why fairytales suited me so well.

Few stories could catch my fancy with as much force as fairytales, particularly Grimm’s. My grandparents gave me a volume for Christmas one year, and I devoured the mystical, sometimes brutal stories, while looking over my shoulder every now and then to see if some adult would stop me. Though the stories were short and easy to read, they exuded a bizarre sophistication, something none of the books I was given to read at school held. They whooshed like witches on broomsticks. They snapped and sizzled. Children were abandoned, heads were severed and babies were used for bargaining. I distinctly remember loving an obscure tale called “One Eye, Two Eyes, and Three Eyes,” and yes, it’s as strange as it sounds.

But what value do these tales hold beyond entertaining reading material? Some would say none. Not only are they outdated, but sometimes completely false or inappropriate for children. At schools I often ask students to tell me if they like fairytales or not. Many of them do, but some admit that they don’t care for them, and the biggest reason for their lack of interest in the tales? They’re not real. They couldn’t happen in real life, so why should I read them? The very thing which drew me to these tales repels others.

 It’s true. Fairytales are not real. Pumpkins cannot be turned into carriages, no one can spin straw into gold and mermaids are not real. And yet, somehow, they did teach me something of reality. Each tale pulled me through a portal and unlocked the truths of the universe. Through “Hansel and Gretel,” I learned that life can be cruel and parents are sometimes reduced to desperate harshness. “The Goose Girl” showed me how cruelty and spite often turn on themselves to create their own punishments. “Cinderella” gave me hope that patience and goodness will be rewarded.

 And so I came full circle. Fairytales took me away from all the “real things” and showed me the strange and impossible, but they always brought me back with fresh understanding, and a new way to view the real world, with hope for the real things to become better.