When I was younger I was a huge fan of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, I had huge hard-bound collections the complete works of each (I think I even had two different versions of the complete Andersen). I still have them today, complete with the pencil checks in the tables of contents where I marked each story as I read it.
I loved them all, but the Little Mermaid was quite possibly my favorite of Andersen’s stories (The Snow Queen a close runner-up). I even went to Copenhagen on a pilgrimage during my semester abroad in college, primarily to see the lovely bronze statue of the little mermaid erected in the harbor there. I loved the story that much. (I also bought a copy of the book in Danish while I was there. Not that I can read Danish, but the pictures are beautiful.)
I also remember going to see Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid in the theater. I enjoyed it as a movie, especially the music and the great underwater visuals; but then I ranted and raved for weeks about how they had ruined the story. It had nothing of the beauty, the truth and the transcendence of the original.
And I was thrilled today to see my sentiments echoed, and articulated so much more eloquently than I ever could in this article at First Things titled “Grim Tales”, sent to me by reader Sheila, in which Kari Jenson Gold compares the Disney storybook version of The Little Mermaid with the Andersen original:
Needless to say, there is no mention of immortal souls, sea foam, eternity, priests, or even marriage in the Disney book. Instead, Ariel, empowered female, sits crying in her ocean room, when the Sea Witch (now called Ursula) shows up to tempt her. �Sign this contract. It says that I agree to make you a human for three days. . . . If, after three days, Prince Eric does not love you, has not kissed you . . . you belong to me!� Notice how the stakes have been diminished: our girl just needs a kiss. Not only does this new, improved, politically correct version take away most of the motivation for her sacrifice, it also removes the conscious choice and effort required to visit the Sea Witch. Disney turns Ariel into just another desperate girl trying to find affection.
Gold has some wonderful insights into the problem of how both parents and teachers frequently fail to understand the purpose and importance of children’s books:
But it is in the schools that perhaps the deepest confusion exists about the purposes of children�s literature. This year my husband and I attended several open houses at top-ranked private schools. At some of these events, tables for each grade were set up with frequently used materials, books read, and work produced. Very few of the classic children�s books were in evidence. Instead, the children were reading books chosen not because they were beautifully written or had stood the test of time, but because of their relationship to �appropriate� subject matter. In the lower grades at least, books were seldom understood as literature; they were merely aids to teaching social studies.
Parents regularly express concern about violence and death in books, about anything that could be considered scary, and they do an enormous amount of censoring at home. TV time is limited, junk food is banned. These are careful, concerned parents. But few seem equally concerned about the dangers of trivial stories and bad prose.
Children need to hear beautiful language if they are to speak and write beautifully. They need to hear stories of love and courage and joy and sorrow so their imaginations are fired and their hearts expanded. They need to hear the language of Rudyard Kipling, the whimsy of A. A. Milne, the sorrow of Oscar Wilde, the mystery of Hans Christian Andersen, the wisdom of E. B. White, the terror of the Brothers Grimm, the wildness of Dr. Suess . . . there is no shortage of magnificent children�s literature. Children have little enough time for reading in their busy, scheduled lives. When they read, or when they listen, what we give them should be worthy of their eager, wondering minds and souls.
Read the whole article here.
I think it’s a tragedy it is that so much junk passes for children’s literature these days while so many treasures are unknown. In our library we have no Disney books, no Barbie books, and no Sesame Street books (well, ok we do have The Monster at the End of This Book starring lovable furry old Grover, a book I enjoyed reading with my parents and which I have fond memories of from my childhood). Instead, I am striving to build a collection of the best books I can find, with beautiful illustrations and inspiring prose. And I like to post reviews of the treasures that I find, hoping to inspire other mothers to seek out beautiful, well-written books, to let them know about the big beautiful world of children’s literature that can be hard to find at big box stores—though you can glean some treasures even there if you are willing to hunt.
I look forward to the day when I will pull my Grimm and Andersen volumes from the shelf and share my favorite stories with Isabella and Sophia. Isabella has already been introduced to some of them in picture book form, of course. Here are a few of the books I’ve found that we love: