Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Magic of Fairy Tales

With Lucky Duck in performances this week, we’ve been thinking about fairy tales a lot lately. But Lucky Duck isn’t the first fairy tale adaptation of the season – we’ve already had a production of Rumplestiltskin, and past years have seen everything from Hansel and Gretel to Rapunzel at the theater. So we were surprised by recent research that found 1 in 5 parents read only modern books to their kids instead of sharing fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.

Not having a child myself–but having very fond memories of being read fairy tales as a kid–I wanted to get a parent’s perspective on the study. I reached out to Alma Malabanan-McGrath, the Director of Operations for the New 42nd Street Studios, to discuss the research and her own experiences as a parent.

B: Alma, what were your favorite books as a kid?
A: Where the Wild Things Are was a big favorite. I was a kid that liked fantasy, and was always very drawn to strong female characters like Madeline or Pippi Longstocking, because they were never afraid of anything. What’s embarrassing is that my brothers and my mom used to call me Pippi Longstocking all the time.

B: Tell me a little bit more about your daughter and her favorite books…
A: She’s 5 years old and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is definitely one of her current favorites. She recently had to do a read-a-thon for school, and when I asked her about her favorite book, her favorite was The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder from the Chowder series by Brooklyn artist Peter Brown. But she’s five, so I don’t think she has a favorite quite yet.

B: What fairy tales, if any, have you introduced to her?
A: She’s a big fan of Puss in Boots, Rumplestiltskin, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. She really does enjoy them. I’ve started reading some of the lesser known Grimm Tales to her, as well. Her only objection is that there are no pictures.

B: I’m curious, how do you choose which stories to share?
A: To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I have any particular method. The only objection I have to some of the fairy tales is the archetype of the female needing to be saved. Women are a lot stronger than that. So I have told her, “I might tell you a story and switch the genders in it, so that the princess saves the prince.” She does question that because she wants me to stay true to the source material. She’ll ask me, “Is that what really happened?"

B: What value do you see in sharing fairy tales with your daughter?
A: The wonderful thing about fairy tales, folk tales, fables, is that they’re fantastical. They’re these colorful, rich worlds that we can lose ourselves in. I think they’re really important to help develop a child’s imagination and creativity. Fairy tales are a very European tradition, while folk tales exist in every culture. Both of my parents moved to the U.S. from the Philippines and the Filipino folk tale tradition is a way of passing down lessons and culture to the next generation. Even though I was born and raised in this country, and my parents did their best to assimilate into American culture, it’s still very important to me to carry on those traditions. And because my daughter's father is Scottish, I have a book of Scottish folk tales that I read to her as well. It’s a reflection of the culture, and storytelling is part of that culture.

B: Do you see similarities between Filipino tales and the book of Scottish tales?
A: You definitely find so many common themes: don’t stray from the path, do as your parents say or something bad will happen. That’s another thing I really appreciate about fables and fairy tales – it’s important to learn that bad things will happen in life. But you know what? You’re equipped, even as a child, to solve your own problems. It’s good to be clever, and it’s good to be witty, and it’s good to find your way out of snags. I think that’s incredibly important for a child to learn. I want my kid to be equipped to figure things out for herself.

B: I want to get specific about the tales in that study, which happen to be some of your favorites. Almost half the parents surveyed refused to read Rumplestiltskin or Rapunzel  because they featured kidnapping. Do you have any concerns about the content?
A: No concerns whatsoever. When I read the study I was shocked.That's a high number of people saying that they just want to avoid having to talk things through with their kids. The main theme in those stories for me is triumph. And it’s something that I don’t think many of us experience enough on a day-to-day basis.

B: Do fairy tales have the opportunity to also teach or explore the complexities of the world?
A: Absolutely! Just understanding that Rumpelstiltskin can be a sympathetic character was a powerful realization as a child. I think part of the purpose of fairy tales is to show that the world is not black and white. Things happen, and people do things, but there is always a way out of it.

B: Do you think Hansel and Gretel can apply to kids today?
A: Yes. As a kid, my brother and I would pretend we were Hansel and Gretel. The idea of a house made of candy and gingerbread in the middle of the woods was the coolest thing ever. But the themes still translate today: be wary of anything that’s just handed to you or is too good to be true. Be aware of your surroundings.

B: What about The Gingerbread Man? Parents noted being uncomfortable explaining that a gingerbread man got eaten. Would you share that story?
A: I would give my daughter a gingerbread man to eat while reading the story. She realizes it is not real. This is not a real man being eaten by a fox. It’s a cookie that’s come to life.

B: The survey also said that parents found Jack and the Beanstalk too unrealistic.
A: I don’t even understand what that means. It’s a story, it’s a fairy tale. They’re meant to be fantasy.

B: What importance do you think fantasy holds for your daughter?
A: I’m still a relatively new parent, but I’m of the mind that you cultivate imagination like any other skill. Imagination is incredibly important and feeds almost everything we do. Coming from creative backgrounds, it’s incredibly important to me and my husband that we spark our daughter’s imagination and encourage her to tell stories of her own. But I also think that fantasy can be a good place to go when you don’t want to be here, in this world. Whether it’s out of boredom, whether it’s out of being in a difficult situation – things happen. And it’s a good place to go. It protects the mind and the heart I think.

B: What impact do you hope to have by sharing these stories as a family?
A: A basic love of reading, first and foremost. Literature is the first art form we teach our kids. I think reading fairy tales feeds into an appreciation of the arts, which in the simplest of ways, makes us better people. The arts stimulate interest in all other subjects, as well as in life around us. But they also teach us about magic. We have this whiteboard at home that we call our graffiti wall and earlier this week I wrote, “You are my own little piece of magic." I want her know that magic is real, magic is in love, it’s real in our relationships and our family and in who we are. But it’s something that you can’t touch, that can still be very real. Magic exists in fairy tales, but magic exists for us, too.

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