Literature for Littles: Fairy Tales, Fables, and Folk Tales

A big component of our preschool literature reading comes from fairy tales, fables and folk tales. I want the kids to be exposed to these types of stories for three primary reasons:

  • They are (often) part of the canon of Western literature, and understanding them illuminates references in other literature, as well as contributing to general cultural literacy.
  • They are well-told stories.  I think it is important to expose children to the best of literature – how can they develop a taste for good stories if they never hear them?
  • Most of the stories contain a moral or maxim that is helpful in life.  Generally I’m against beat-the-reader-over-the-head type conclusions, but a well told fable can be a helpful teaching tool.

When I sort through books of this type, as with all genres, I’m looking for a book that is well-written, beautifully or interestingly illustrated, and has a tone that doesn’t condescend to children.  We usually read two selections from this list in a given day, trying to mix it up (so maybe one Aesop and one Andersen, for example).  Without further ado, here are some of our top picks.

Aesop’s Fables for Children, beautifully illustrated by Milo Winter, has several different names depending on which edition you find (ours is called “The Aesop for Children”) but as long as you get Aesop with Winter’s illustrations I think you will be pleased.  Many of Aesop’s fables are familiar, but this volume also contains lesser known fables that you might not find elsewhere.  Aesop, of course, was an ancient Greek, and so his fables are referenced throughout a great deal of the canon of literature.  This makes Aesop a good part of a classical education, but certainly useful even if you don’t classically educate.

Eric Carle’s Treasury of Classic Stories for Children contains stories from Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm and is a great collection to read through.  The book contains twenty-two stories, a historical note about Aesop, Andersen and the Grimms, and a note about how Carle selected and edited the stories he chose to include.   Best of all are Eric Carle’s unique and always interesting illustrations sprinkled liberally throughout.

Arnold Lobel (of Frog and Toad fame) wrote a great book of tales in the tradition of Aesop that you won’t want to miss.   Fables is a fun and funny set of tales with bizarre and hilarious twists such as a camel ballet dancing in the desert, a bear who is convinced to wear bags on his feet, an ostrich in love, a vain rhinoceros, a pig on a forced diet, and other entertaining concepts.  The book won a well-deserved Caldecott Medal.

The Classic Treasury of Hans Christian Andersen is most notable for Christian Birmingham’s lovely painting and pencil drawing illustrations.  The book contains classic fairy tales like Thumbelina, The Nightingale, The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Emporer’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, The Princess and the Pea,  and others.

American Tall Tales is a good collection of American fables and folk tales, such as Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and several others that, I must sheepishly admit, I had not heard of before.  The tales are great adventures, and I like how the author gives notes on each story about the provenance of the tale and historical aspects about it.  The wood engraving illustrations by Michael McCurdy add lots of atmosphere to the stories.

I think the Brer Rabbit stories are an important part of American literature, but I have a hard time with the original text and some adaptations because they seem to emphasize or feed some negative stereotypes of African Americans and I don’t see the point of that.  What I like about Van Dyke Parks’ adaptations are his preservation of the character and tenor of the stories without dipping too deeply into those negative aspects.  When we talk about a Brer Rabbit story we usually wind up concluding that being tricky is not kind or a way to be a good friend or talking about how being clever is good but being dishonest is wrong and so forth.  You may feel differently about Brer Rabbit or just want to skip the stories entirely, but if you decide to read them, I’d highly recommend Parks’ versions, also because Barry Moser’s watercolor illustrations are great.  We have read and enjoyed Jump!: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit and also the follow up Jump on Over!: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit and His Family.

Paul Zelinsky’s award winning fairy tales are fantastically illustrated books of individual stories.  We have his version of Rapunzel and also his Rumpelstiltskin.  I enjoyed the historical notes in the back of each volume, wherein Zelinsky discusses how the Brothers Grimm came to write the stories in the first place, explains differences among versions, and gives notes on his choices in illustration.

James Marshall’s retellings of the classic tales of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and Cinderella are less gorgeous but more whimsically illustrated and told with a funny tone and engaging, witty dialogue.  Although Marshall might make a bit free with some of the original details, he preserves the core and delight of each story and makes them fun.  I think there may be other fairy tales in his collection, but the above listed titles are the ones we own and enjoy.

The Tale of the Turnip is another very fun retelling, with great illustrations that add to the levity of the tale and really hilarious dialogue that has entered our family parlance.  If you ever hear the kids say “Stone the crows!” or “Hen’s teeth!” or “What what WHAAAAAT?” now you’ll know why.  We really enjoy this book and the kids often request it or tell the story to each other.

The Fir-Tree is adapted from Hans Christian Andersen by Lilli Carre and I picked it up because of the interesting and different illustrations and pretty hand-lettered look of the text.  The story is a little bit sad but it has a good take-away lesson.  This could be a story you read more during Christmas, since the pinnacle of the tree’s experience is one day of glory as a Christmas tree, but enough of the story takes place during other parts of the year that it need not be strictly a Christmas book.

I am not aware of many picture books for children adapted from Chaucer, but Chanticleer and the Fox is one such book.  Barbara Cooney, whose text and illustrations you might remember from Miss Rumphius, Ox-Cart Man, and so forth, adapted Chanticleer from Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tale.  I think the book is unique and interesting, and we always like Cooney’s pictures, plus it can’t hurt to get an early start in classic British literature, right?

The Steadfast Tin Soldier is one of Jack’s favorite books, probably because it has a lot of adventure and the detailed illustrations by P.J. Lynch include a lot of detail to pore over.  The story was adapted from Hans Christian Andersen by Naomi Lewis.  The illustrations, as I’ve mentioned, are wonderful and full of detail, and they add greatly to the poignant tale.

Another Hans Christian Andersen story we enjoy is Demi’s version of The Nightingale.  This is another case of the illustrations perfectly matching and enhancing the story.  At the end of the book Demi describes the process of illustration for the story, including the line drawings, painting on silk, how the colors were made from semi-precious stones and what they looked like as they were mixed and so forth.  If you like to do art based on books you read, this one might provide some interesting options.

Jan Brett is one of our favorite illustrators, so I was glad to find her retelling of Town Mouse, Country Mouse.  In her characteristic style, the pictures are full of fabulous detail that conveys the setting of the woods and the town house very well.  Each page also contains Brett’s usual device of a small side frame illustrating what is going on elsewhere in the meantime as the story unfolds.  Even the borders around each picture are interesting and give added exposition.
It may be sort of a stretch to include Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales in this category, but I do think they count as folk tales somewhat.  You can find these books in any number of editions, from the small nursery sized volumes to board books and large collections such as the Giant Treasury of Peter Rabbit.  We own these stories in many formats, but I find that the Treasury is easiest to use for preschool because its size makes it simple to add to our stack.  Of course the best selling point of Peter Rabbit stories are Beatrix Potter’s wonderful illustrations.  Our nursery is decorated in Beatrix Potter (Pottery Barn Kids stole my idea!) as was my nursery when I was a baby, so these stories are fond favorites of mine.

One last collection I should mention is The Children’s Book of Virtues.  This volume contains lots of stories, poems and fables taken from a variety of sources and countries and arranged according to the character traits exemplified in each.  There are sections for courage, responsibility, compassion, and honesty.  Some of the selections are a little too moralistic for me, and I think some of the stories are better told or better illustrated in other volumes we own, but overall I think the book is a good reference and addition to our library.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

I’m also linking this post up at Read Aloud Thursday!

9 thoughts on “Literature for Littles: Fairy Tales, Fables, and Folk Tales

  1. Wow! Thanks! This focus is a big emphasis for our K4 year this year! I’ve read Richard Scarry’s Nursery Tales and a variety of Mother Goose versions, but I realized over the summer how few of the classic fairy tales I had read so far to my girls. As an English major, I was appalled at how “literarily” illiterate my 4-year-old was! And with well-meaning friends and church family, I don’t want the first exposure to be the current “Princess” versions! So thanks for the wonderful list of additional resources–I’m seeing some options for Christmas ideas!!!

  2. Thank you thank you thank you. You have redeemed another one of my trips to the library.

    One quesiton though, I remember reading some fairy tales and nursery rhymes (my sister had a book of fairy tales when we were growing up and then I read some more when Dylan was a baby) that frankly just didn’t sound very nice and some were bordering on gory (heads getting chopped off and such), particularly the Brothers Grimm. Do you just skip those ones or do you edit them as you read?

    1. Heather, I don’t edit much as we read, but my kids are OK with discussing things as we read, so we sometimes talk about how certain actions or reactions aren’t good choices. But I think that fairy tales and nursery rhymes and fables etc appeal to children’s innate sense of justice and help them understand good and evil. Traditional versions of those tales never glorify the evil, but rather show it as something to be fought and opposed and overcome. Some modern retellings attempt to be clever by twisting that around and making the bad guy the hero, but that is not my cup of tea so we don’t read those. As I mentioned with Brer Rabbit stories, those are often great opportunities to talk about how to be a good friend and neighbor (usually by doing the opposite of whatever tricky thing Brer Rabbit or the other animals did) and to discuss how tricking others or taking advantage of them is not a good way to build trust or show love and kindness.

      In short, I think you can give your kids the benefit of the doubt that they understand that bad guys are bad and good guys are good, and you can use some of the darker parts of fairy tales as a springboard for discussion. Life is often difficult and hard to understand, and literature gives kids good tools for making sense of it.

  3. Oh, I’m so glad you linked up, Catherine! I almost commented the first time I read this post and suggested that you do so. Subject-specific posts are fine–I just don’t want to only do subject-specific ones myself since I focus on school stuff so much on my blog anyway.

    We have read several of these books, and I’m particularly looking forward to using the Milo Winter Aesop in the near future with my girls!

    Thanks for a great list!

  4. I’m just getting back to this post which has just sat open in a tab in my browser for two weeks! I wanted to get some of the specific titles, collections, and especially illustrators! I really didn’t get to read about all the resources originally, but thanks again for compiling these. And once again I think about how much fun it would be to know you in real life–we love, love, LOVE those two by Paul Zelinsky and anything by Jan Brett. I just discovered her last Christmas and am always amazed at the detail and beauty of her work.

    Shakespeare doesn’t really fit in this post, but since you brought up Chaucer, I’m curious if you have done anything with the Lambs’ Tales of Shakespeare or Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children by Edith Nesbit. I don’t have a copy of either and haven’t gotten around to requesting them from another library. Thought I would see if you had an opinion and wanted to share. (Just found the older post stating you read Nesbit’s versions to Hannah.)

    1. Hi Erica, I’m glad you found the list helpful. I agree, it would be fun to meet up in real life! 🙂 We have read Lambs’ and Nesbit and enjoyed them, but I don’t have them in regular rotation now, because I think Hannah will get more out of them if we come back to them again in Kindergarten or first grade. I do think both of those volumes are great and helpful in exposing young children to Shakespeare. What I like most is how both books preserve some of the flavor and meter of the original so that the child will recognize popular lines when he/she goes back and reads the original.

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