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Classic fairy tales

Posted Tuesday, February 22, 2011, at 2:08 PM

When I was a child, I loved fairy tales.

Some of my favorites were Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and The Three Little Pigs.

Also Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Cinderella, a folk tale. I also liked Little Black Sambo.

They all had a story to tell of conflict and victory.

When my daughter was three years old, I bought a set of children's books. The six-book set was called The How and Why program series. My daughter, now a school teacher, still has the set of books in her home library.

One of the books contains classic fairy tales.

I read those fairy tales to my three year old and later to her younger brother, over and over again, including a version of Little Black Sambo.

The Little Black Sambo book has a controversial history. It was a children's favorite for half a century until the word "sambo" was deemed a racial slur in some countries. The original illustrations showed a caricature of a Southern Indian or Tamil child. Since then the text and illustrations have undergone considerable revision over the years.

I can assure you that I never thought of "sambo" as a racial slur. I simply thought that was the name of a black boy who outwitted some hungry tigers.

As the story goes, Little Black Sambo lived at the edge of the big jungle with his mother, Black Mumbo, and his father, Black Jumbo. His mother had made him a beautiful set of clothes. He thought he looked fine. He went for a walk in the jungle and met a tiger who said it was going to eat Sambo if he didn't surrender his coat. Little Black Sambo gave the tiger his coat and the tiger, wearing the coat, went away thinking it was grand.

That happened three more times with three more tigers (trousers, shoes and green unbrella). Little Black Sambo cried because he didn't have any fine clothes left. He saw all the tigers fighting over which one was the grandest. They took off all the clothes and began to eat each other up. They caught hold of each other's tails and went round and round a palm tree so fast that there was only a pool of butter left around the tree.

Sambo put his clothes back on and ran home. Black Jumbo came through the jungle carrying a copper kettle. Then Black Mumbo made pancakes with the melted butter. Black Jumbo ate 27 pancakes. Black Mumbo ate 42, but Little Black Sambo ate 148 because he was so hungry.

This week I asked my daughter what she remembers about that story I read to her when she was three or four years old.

She said, "I remember being scared that the tigers were going to eat him...even after you'd read it to me a dozen times."

I have wondered why Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs didn't come under scrutiny because of its portrayal of stepmothers.

The wicked queen, who was Snow White's stepmother, tried on several occasions to kill Snow White because of jealousy when Snow White was deemed "the fairest in the land."

The wicked stepmother tried to have Snow White's heart cut out, then poisoned her with a poison comband finally with a poisoned red apple. But it was a prince who came to the rescue and brought Snow White back to life to live with him happily everafter. Versions of this fairy tale also vary.

One says the prince kissed Snow White awake. They all have "happily ever after" endings.

To me that's the crux of the tale, but objectors could have said that was hurtful to stepmothers and banned the classic tale. The same could be said for Cinderella, who had a mean stepmother and stepsisters who treated her like a slave.

All the tales mentioned are memories of my own childhood, and all had happy endings.

Last year my daughter loaned me a couple of children's books that were wonderful. They are the Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker. The books are about a young girl who has ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Or maybe she has ADHD (Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder). The books don't really identify her disorder, but she does have one.

It's the story about everyday life of Clementine, a little girl who's always in trouble. In one instance, Clementine's best friend Margaret gets glue in her hair and tries to cut it out. Clementine, with scissors, comes to the rescue and tries to even it out...and Margaret ends up bald. This is something they do not, I repeat, do not want their mothers to find out.

Clementine is always being sent to the principal's office. This is so routine that Clementine and the principal have a standing confrontation. Clementine's favorite expression is "Okay, fine."

Another children's novel I would recommend is Where the Red Fern Grows. It was written by Wilson Rawls about a boy who buys and trains two redbone coonhound hunting dogs. The boy saves his money for two years so he can order the hound puppies. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann.

Many years ago I bought the book for my son who was maybe 10 years old. Years later the book was passed on to my daughter, the school teacher. She was so impressed that she began reading it in chapters to her students. Eventually she bought a complete classroom set so that all her students could read it individually, or read along as she read to them.

Where the Red Fern Grows doesn't have the happy ending that the other tales do, but it does touch the heart.

And that's what a lot of children's books do.

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