Fairy tales aren’t easy. We might think through a Disney-induced cultural memory that we have a handle on the genre, but we aren’t the target audience. Some medieval romances were written for a courtly audience. I don’t know about you, but I’m not part of a court with its concerns and expected knowledge of participants. Even the later collection and reimagining of the fairy tale with work by the Brothers Grimm or George MacDonald addresses a past audience that seems deceptively similar to a contemporary, English-speaking reader. Reading a medieval or Romantic or Victorian text actually means reading the texts of a different culture.
So how do we help students read these texts? Maybe they’ve grown up with Disney (or the far superior Studio Ghibli works) and need to work out the assumption that come with that. Perhaps they’ve read Tolkien and Lewis and know the genre from its modern descendants.
In Engaging Ideas, John Bean goes through ways to help students transition from surface reading to becoming deep readers who can do more with difficult texts, including deceptively simple texts like the fairy tale.
First, let the students know that these texts aren’t so simple and that struggling with them is synonymous with engaging them, NOT with a lack of reading skills.
A way to go about this is modeling your own reading for the students. Perhaps with a document camera, show where you find the text puzzling or where you summarize and analyse the text in the margins. At the same time hold back from directly explaining the text yourself. Bean cautions against promoting the vicious circle where students who struggle with interpreting a difficult text assume the professor will just lecture on it because it is difficult.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t use mini-lectures to help students with context. In my fairy tale course, I’ll need to point out the structure of a romance as integration, alienation, and reintegration to help students engage the different ways that same genre is imagined and reimagined across texts.
But we still need to promote deep reading by having students engage and struggle with the text without relying on an expected lecture.
Summary writing and genre analysis can help there. For my course, I will have students write short summaries of each romance and fairy tale we read together. These will need to be as absent of analytical moves as possible (though acknowledging that every summary has implicit analysis through selection of important details). Then, using those summaries as evidence, they will write a short genre analysis paper of about three pages. In this paper they will describe the general structure of the genre, identify a target audience, and consider the possible rhetorical purpose of texts within the genre.
For the fairy tale course I’m designing, I devote the first unit to developing these critical reading skills to prepare students for their later writing. You can see the course arc with this three-acts worksheet.