Power and Children’s Books: Teaching Myths, Fairy Tales, Folktale and Legends

by Lantana Publishing on May 21, 2021


May is National-Share-A-Story Month, which got us thinking about the most shared stories of all: myths and fairy tales. So we got Prof. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein who teaches "Myth and Folktale and Children's Literature" at the University of Reading, to talk about power, culture and diversity in these tales as old as time. 

Why and How to Study Children’s Literature?

The Master’s in Children’s Literature at the University of Reading, UK, was founded by my late colleague Mr Tony Watkins in 1984 as the first MA in Children’s Literature in the UK to be accredited in a Department of English Literature, focussing on literary and cultural studies, rather than taught in a Department of Education or Librarian Studies. Tony was profoundly inspired in doing this by the work of the West-Indian Professor Stuart Hall, who founded the “Birmingham School of Cultural Studies” at the University of Birmingham in the UK, one of the first academic movements to start questioning how issues of race determined how and what was studied at universities: that what qualified as the relevant “high culture” was in almost all cases the cultural productions of white, privileged, men. Tony Watkins extended Stuart Hall’s thinking to children’s literature studies, asking how it could be included in academic studies rather than also dismissed as too “popular” (meaning: “simple”, “easy”, “obvious”), including considering how childhood too is marked by the power structures of gender, ethnic identity and class. Stuart Hall and Tony Watkins’s approach has been retained as the focus of our teaching and research to the present day of the CIRCL M(Res) and PhD programmes in Children’s Literature.

Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash 

Myth and Folktale and Children’s Literature

Right from the start, the most popular options module of our degree was that on “Myth and Folktale in Children’s Literature” and this options module in fact is the only module that has been chosen by the students to be taught in every single year of the degree ever since 1984! Our students choose this module because they are fascinated by how cultures and traditions work in myths and fairy-tales (and the related legends and folk-tales) and how children’s literature draws on and engages with myths and fairy tales, but they then also find that Watkins and Hall’s work raises important questions during the module that many of them had not anticipated. In this blog, I am going to describe two of those key issues in order to explain how thinking about myth and folktale involves considering many complex questions about culture, story-telling, reading, identity and power.

Are Myths and Fairy-Tales “Powerful”?

The first question we raise on the module is whether myths and fairy tales are indeed “powerful”? In most discussions it is simply assumed that myths and fairy-tales are powerful and important transmitters of cultures and traditions, but in fact this is a complex issue. For instance, many of us may remember having heard stories or read books (or having books read to us) in childhood but when we then re-read those books or re-hear those stories in later life, we may not read or hear them in at all the same way. Our MA students very often comment on this, for instance in relation to C. S. Lewis’s classic Narnia books: when we (re-)read the first book in that series, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, most of the students remark that they did not realise when they first read it when they were younger that there were so many religious references in the book. In other words, it is often very difficult to predict what “messages” different readers will take from books at different stages. Famously, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued in his classic book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1) that children work through unconscious psychological stages in reading or listening to fairy tales. But there is in fact no evidence that children who grow up without having heard fairy- and folk-tales or myths and legends have significantly different mental health or cultural skills or knowledge than those who do. Nor is there evidence that adults who did read fairy tales and myths as children have achieved the level of psychological maturity as defined by Bettelheim.

Good “Power” and Bad “Power”

The second, equally important, issue is connected to this: even if and when myths and fairy-tales are assumed to be “powerful”, the question is what kind of power this is and who holds this power? A key issue here is that myths and folk/ fairy-tales can be seen both to have a “good” power, in that they preserve and transmit cultural identities and traditions, but at the same time this can also be seen as a “bad” power, because those cultural identities and traditions may be oppressive, exclusionary and assimilatory: that is to say, ideas of “culture” and “tradition” may rely on claiming one unified, homogenous, identity, diminishing or obliterating different identities. As Hall wrote: “Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance.” (2) This can happen on many levels, some of which are more obvious than others: many people will be familiar, for instance, with the wide-spread and long-standing criticism of Disney’s portrayals of women and girls as passive, white and “beautiful”. As writer Jennifer Gerson has stated:

Frozen and Frozen 2 are the only Disney princess movies I’ve allowed my daughter to watch. Unlike other Disney films, they are mostly devoid of sexist themes and disempowering relationships. There’s no textbook heterosexual romance where the female lead awaits a prince to rescue her. Instead, the plot follows two sisters who learn to love each other and themselves. (3) 

Gerson notes that other Disney movies, such as The Jungle Book, and “others like it, bear a label that reads: ‘Culturally outdated content,’” but what Hall and Watkins’s thinking helps us to keep in mind is both that each reader, including child readers, may read and remember their reading and its influence differently than we expect, but also that culture is never one, stable, consistent, thing, even in terms of being claimed to be “outdated”: almost certainly, what we regard as being culturally acceptable today will not be thought so tomorrow, however enlightened and liberated we regard ourselves to be.


More on Power and Identity: Disney’s Moana

Gender, then, is one aspect of how myths, legends, fairy-tales and folktales involved in the ongoing debates around culture, tradition, oppression and inclusion, even when we cannot know how each viewer of the Disney films or reader of the tales will experience or understand the myths and fairy/folktales. Other aspects of identity are equally involved in such discussions and issues, whether this be in relation to ethnic or sexual identity or Dis/ability. Tasha Robinson writes about Disney’s Moana, for instance, that “If the worst that can be said about a Disney film is that it’s too conscious and crafted about its messaging, though, it’s mostly doing diversity right.” (4) Here we can see that critics such as Robinson actually cannot move away from speculating on the “messaging” to the audience, so that “diversity” becomes always simply about sending the right “messages”. A “message” is something sent by one or more people to other people with a certain intention (“conscious” and “crafted”), but the difficulty that keeps arising is both that it cannot be known if this is indeed the “message” that a viewer or reader sees or reads, but also that somebody has the power to send this “message” to the viewers and readers: the senders determine the “message” and the viewers/ readers have to “receive” it, passively. Robinson’s piece includes consideration of these difficulties to an extent, because Robinson carefully notes that

Moana directors John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, The Princess and the Frog) built an extensive brain trust around designing and vetting the movie to respect the South Pacific myths it incorporates, and to accurately reflect the culture it portrays. There have been missteps along the way — a controversy over a Maui costume that looked suspiciously like a brownface suit; early complaints that Maui’s thick build was a Samoan stereotype — and telling lapses, like the animators making Maui bald, which required an intervention from a Tahitian cultural consultant. (5)

Two issues become apparent here: first, that it is after all not the members of the “brain trust” that are actually themselves making the movie, however much their “vetting” might be taken into account: instead John Musker and Ron Clements, neither of whom are from the South Pacific according to Robinson, are making the movie and the final decisions. They have that “power”. Secondly, the idea of “accurately reflect[ing] the culture” brings us back to the problem of making a culture singular, homogenous and unchanging, and in turn defining that “culture” is under the ultimate control of the non-Southern Pacific and non-Tahitian makers of the movie, albeit with the vetting they allow their “brain trust”. We can also note, finally, that the “messaging” about this “culture” is all on behalf of viewers who are assumed also to be non-South Pacific and non-Tahitian, as Moana is in English and the discussions about the “accurate portrayal” of “the culture” are always about the portrayal to others whose “culture” is already assumed to be not South Pacific nor Tahitian (incidentally, the difference between “South Pacific”, “Samoan” and “Tahitian” is never remarked upon or explained in the piece).

From Disney's Moana

Conclusion: No Answers but More Thinking

Thinking about the two, key, issues – whether and how “power” actually works and how “power” can be “good” or “bad” -- makes things much more complicated, but what it also helps us and our students to do on our MA course is to stay humble and realise that there are, in Hall and Watkins’s approach, no final, “right”, answers, but only many ways to keep thinking about these important issues. Surprisingly, perhaps, then, our MA degree does not promise students to teach them what the “right messages” are or how to portray gender or ethnic identity to children (or anyone), but instead keeps considering why and how “power” is always at work in the stories that people tell each other and themselves.


(1)  Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (London: Penguin, 1976).

(2) Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’”, in: Raphael Samuel (ed.), People’s History and Socialist Theory (London: Kegan Paul-Routledge, 1991), pp. 231-5, pp. 237-9, p. 239

(3)  Jennifer Gerson, “Disney classics like ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Aladdin’ are filled with sexist themes. Here’s how to discuss them with kids.” https://www.insider.com/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-sexist-themes-disney-films-2019-12 (accessed 12-04-2021)

(4) & (5) Tasha Robinson, “Moana review: after 80 years of experiments, Disney has made the perfect Disney movie.” https://www.theverge.com/2016/11/26/13749060/moana-film-review-walt-disney-animation-dwayne-johnson-diversity (accessed 15-04-2021)

Thank you, Karin, for this fascinating read about the tales we know and love! To learn more about the programme in which she teaches, visit their website. 

Karín Lesnik-Oberstein is Professor of Critical Theory and Director of the Graduate Centre for International Research in Childhood: Literature, Culture, Media (CIRCL) and its M(Res) in Children’s Literature in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Karín has published extensively on critical and literary theory, children’s literature, childhood, gender, queer theory, philosophy, medicine and mathematics, including five edited volumes and her monographs Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child (Oxford: Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press, 1994) and On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood (London: Karnac Books, 2008).



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