Flipping Fairy Tales

Disney’s latest blockbuster Maleficent starring Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie is causing a bit of a stir amongst the masses by alleging that one of the most terrifying creatures in children’s stories is more of a victim than a villain.

Flipping fairy tales and children’s stories has become pretty fashionable in recent years, with several films and books looking at them from ‘the other side’ portraying the bad guys as not that bad and the good guys as not that good. Wicked began the trend with it’s opening assertion that ‘No One Mourns the Wicked’ before explaining the true, rather devastating, story of the Wicked Witch of the West. And let’s not forget about Disney’s latest success story, Frozen, which transformed the infamous Ice Queen into a loving sister who was oppressed by her parents and terrified of her own powers.

Part of me is irritated by this latest trend. When I was younger the appeal of reading and going to watch films, plays and pantomimes was the knowledge that you would have a good guy to support and cheer for and a bad guy to hate and jeer at. It was simple. It taught me that there are always going to be villains, but that there will also always be heroes to defeat them.

But a much larger part of my recognises that this is a silly way to see it. These reformed stories convey that, most of the time, the bad people haven’t been bad their whole life and the way they have turned out isn’t necessarily their fault. They also show that good people aren’t perfect, and can have far darker sides. They reveal that while the hero defeating the villain is necessary, it is not something we should all be entirely happy about.

In life, people that you love will let you down and those you hate may be the ones to come through for you in the end. It doesn’t matter how much you don’t like someone, you will never relish their downfall, for they are a human being too. These lessons are ones we should be teaching children. While they are confusing and, perhaps, not as satisfying, they will prepare them for later life.

For while we may enjoy teaching our children stories of monsters, we should try to remind them that monsters were once people too.

-Claire Flynn

-Image courtesy of Global Panorama (https://www.flickr.com/photos/121483302@N02/)

Nationalism and Diversity is Needed in our Reading

I’m going to go against the grain here and say I can, to an extent, understand Michael Gove’s recent encouragement for the GCSE syllabus to focus more on English novels, despite the abuse he has received for the action. Growing up in Edinburgh, I was always a little annoyed at the fact we got very few Scottish texts despite the plethora of excellent Scottish authors out there. We got Tennessee Williams, J. D. Salinger and Seamus Heaney but rarely Robert Louis Stevenson, Liz Lochhead or Lewis Grassic Gibbon. I wound up doing my Advanced Higher dissertation on William McIlvanney and I chose Scottish Literature over English Literature in my first year of University, feeling that my studies had otherwise been absent of a nationalist influence.

So if there is a consensus that teenagers in England are not reading enough English literature then it makes sense to alter the syllabus to focus on English authors, poets and playwrights, right?

The problem is, along with everyone else, including Meera Syal, one of the new English authors on the syllabus, I do find the exclusion of certain American authors strange and rather hard to comprehend. While I always felt a bit miffed at the lack of Scottish texts used in my school, it did not stop be from being devastated by the demise of the delicate Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ To Kill A Mockingbird, touched by the journey of the lost Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and falling in love with the noble ideals of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.

These varied texts were so important in my teenage years, that I cannot imagine school kids going through high school without reading them, particularly those interested in studying literature to a higher level.

While I understand the desire for nationalism in syllabuses, there is also a need for diversity in our reading, especially in our younger years. We should offer our children and teenagers a variety of literature from different authors with different backgrounds, to afford them the same pleasures we had from reading our favourite books for the first time.

-Claire Flynn

-Image courtesy of Netzanette (https://www.flickr.com/photos/netzanette/)

Graduates are not the Solution

The Nuffield Foundation’s research recently found that the attainment gap between deprived and privileged children is exacerbated by private and voluntary nurseries in deprived areas, which are of lower quality than those in privileged areas. The gap is widest in language skills. As children who live in deprived areas are less likely to obtain  as much early years education at home, this means that those who are most in need of good quality education at nursery are less likely to receive it, leaving them at a double disadvantage, the researchers have discovered.

The assertion from the Nuffield Solution was that this problem is due to a lack of graduates in these nurseries. Whereas half of all school classes are led by graduate-qualified teachers, less than half of private and voluntary nurseries employ one and only 8 percent employ more than one. The team of researchers, led by Sandra Mathers, came to the conclusion that private and voluntary nurseries should hire more graduates in order to ensure children are receiving better levels of early years education, which should help to lessen attainment gaps.

However, this is not a comprehensive solution to this complex problem. While nurseries are to receive additional funding from the Government this year, it is unfair to pressure them to use valuable funds on graduate salaries when they are often struggling as it is, particularly in deprived areas. This additional funding is likely to be needed for other things.

Furthermore, the simple addition of one or two graduates to a nursery is unlikely to be enough to improve the early years education. What would be far more effective is to ensure that every member of staff receives a degree of training to ensure they are able to offer high quality early years education to children, in order to improve their literacy and numeracy skills. It would be far more worthwhile attempting this, for every member of staff feeling qualified to teach children would be much better than leaving it to one or two.

While I am concerned about the attainment gap and the problems of education in nurseries, I do not believe pressurising nurseries to use their funds for one or two graduates is necessarily the answer. They should be encouraged, instead, to ensure that all their staff feel capable and qualified to provide good quality education to children.

-Claire Flynn

-Image courtesy of Simone Ramella (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ramella/)

Children’s Stories Need a Little Darkness

In recent years many theories have been offered to explain the increasing gap in literacy skills between girls and boys. One of the more interesting ones is that, as time has gone on, children’s books have become more and more cautious about being child- friendly. In other words the scary bits are being eliminated and boys are less attracted to reading as a result. I firmly believe that children’s stories need a little darkness, not just to encourage boys to read, but girls also, and to teach our children some important life lessons.

When I was a child I was terrorised by the idea of Little Rabbit Foo Foo being turned into a goonie. I tried to avoid being forced to bathe for a month after reading Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Even the family-friendly chant We’re Going on a Bear Hunt culminates in the family running for their lives after their search turns out to be successful.

The darker elements of these books scared me… but they also enticed me. I begged my parents to read me my favourite twisted tales. As I got older I would read well past my bedtime, unable to put books down, especially at the scary parts.

Books are there to entertain, but also, most of the time, to translate real life lessons to children. Little Rabbit Foo Foo taught me from not to be mean to others because it would come back to you. The Witches taught me not to trust strangers and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt taught me to… er… not hunt bears? You get the point.

By forcing sugar, spice and all things nice down the throats of children, we may not only be diminishing their interest in books, particularly boys, but also neglecting to teach them some pretty important lessons through fantasy that they will inevitably come across in reality. When they do they will not be cushioned by the stories they were told as a child.

Stories don’t just teach us that evil exists but that it can be defeated. Without that lesson, the ‘badness’ we are attempting to protect our children from may become undefeatable.

-Claire Flynn

-Image courtesy of Manchester City Library (https://www.flickr.com/photos/manchesterlibrary/)