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Fairy tales or scary tales: Should we sanitize stories for our kids? Add to ...

No parent wants to knowingly conjure up nightmares or phobias. And since there’s already a flood of upsetting news from war zones and natural disasters on TV screens and newspapers both in and outside the home – not to mention the casual violence of schoolyard bullying – parents may find cracking down on fairy tales as a direct way to stem the tide.

To Prof. Zipes, the notion that we should shield children from dark fairy tales is “hypocritical – the honest thing is to tell children violence does occur. The world is filled with struggle and conflict.”

Ms. Brown, for one, says she sees evidence that children are more “robust” and can handle more than we give them credit for.

After watching the Disney remake of Rapunzel, the 2010 animated film Tangled, Ms. Brown noticed her four-year-old daughter and a friend re-enacting the movie – with one major edit. The girls objected to the evil Mother Gothel character, who had kidnapped Rapunzel and raised her as her own.

“There can’t be an evil mother or their whole world view would be shattered. So when they acted it out, they made up a character named Good Mother Gothel who was actually the real mother,” she says. “I thought that was fascinating ... they took the part that challenged them and they changed it.”

Prof. Zipes says the key to reading the originals to young children is opening up the floor for discussion.

In story circles, he’s read the Charles Perrault version of Little Red Riding Hood (which predated the Grimms’ version) in which the wolf eats the grandma and the red-cloaked girl and no one saves them. There’s also a harsh moral: Little Red Riding Hood gets what she deserved for going into the forest alone.

“Then we discuss: ‘Do you think that’s right?’ ” he says. Then, he’ll read a “counter-tale,” like Polly and the Wolf, in which a plucky girl repeatedly outwits a hungry wolf.

And if your child is scared by a story, “Put it away,” Ms. Brown adds.

Just how gruesome were they?

A few classics to consider:

Cinderella

In the original Grimm version, the evil step-sisters maim themselves to fit into the gold (not glass) slipper. One sister chops off her toe and the other chops off her heel. Later, after Cinderella and her Prince are united, the stepsisters’ eyes are pecked out by birds for their bad behaviour.

Snow White

In the 1812 version of this classic, the evil queen is actually Snow White’s mother – the Grimms changed this in subsequent versions aimed more at children. The idea that a mother would try to kill her child was deemed too upsetting – although other grisly bits remained. The queen asks to eat the lungs and liver of Snow White after the huntsman kills her. And when Snow White and her prince are married, the evil queen is forced to dance in poker-hot iron shoes until she drops dead.

Little Red Riding Hood (Little Red Cap)

In the Grimms’ 1812 telling, the wolf swallows the grandmother whole and waits for Little Red Riding Hood. He then tricks her and eats her whole, too. A hunter comes to the rescue, slicing into the belly of the beast. They fill the wolf’s belly with stones, so when he awakes, he collapses and dies. This version is tamer than earlier versions, which included rape and cannibalism themes.

Sleeping Beauty

In one earlier version, Sleeping Beauty is raped by a king while asleep and gives birth to two children after he has left her. When she and her children are reunited with him (after one of the babies suckles on her finger and loosens the splinter that caused her sleep), the jilted queen asks her cook to kill and feed all three to her husband (the cook hides them all instead); the plot is foiled and she is thrown to her death in a pit of vipers.

How Some Children Played at Butchering

In the 1819 edition of their tales, the Grimms omitted this gory account of brothers playing butcher. One unlucky child plays the part of the pig; the other slits his throat. This deed begets a number of other deaths – the child butcher is stabbed by the mother. While she’s doing this, her other child drowns in the bath. She then hangs herself and her husband comes home and dies of grief.

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