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How to Write Your Own Fairy Tale

What is your favorite fairy tale?

That's the question I use to start a discussion in an elementary school classroom about writing your own fairy tale. Hands go up. Mostly girls are eager to share their favorites. Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. The Little Mermaid. Cinderella. The Disney Princess movies are generally the first ones to be mentioned, and this is a good thing, generally. Why? Not because I want to talk about Disney Princess movies. But because there is inevitably a boy in the back row who groans at the mention of a Disney Princess movie. And he's the most important person in the classroom. He looks bored. He KNOWS he isn't going to like this. He's designated himself to be the spoilsport. It's probably what he does to the teacher. She looks up from her desk, frowning, then glances at me, as if to ask if I need some help to quash this annoyance.

But I don't. I love this annoyance. I love kids who are willing to do the opposite of what they think everyone else is doing. They are the ones I do school visits to reach. The ones who think they hate all fairy tales because they are about princesses and getting married. They wouldn't pick up one of my books with a princess on the cover with a ten-foot pole. They don't read much at all. And if I asked them to name a fairy tale with a male protagonist, they would never once think of Jack and the Giant Killer or Jack and the Beanstalk or Rumpelstiltskin (with a princess, granted) or The Elves and the Shoemaker or even the Gingerbread Man. But as soon as I point my finger at that boy who hates princesses and ask him why he hates The Little Mermaid, he is eager to talk and get my attention and the whole class's. It's perfect.

It's all about getting a pretty dress, he says. Or it's all about getting kissed. Yuck! Several boys in the middle rows murmur agreement. They don't want to be on the teacher's bad list, but it's true. They hate fairy tales, too. They don't want to hear about damsels in distress. They don't want to hear about fairy godmothers and glass slippers. And they certainly don't want to hear about a poisoned apple.

But hating fairy tales is actually the most important first step in rewriting one your own way. I like many fairy tales, but the ones I have published retellings of have been the fairy tales that I hate. Snow White, because I think Snow White is the most passive, uninteresting heroine of all, and really it's the magic mirror and the evil queen whom any reasonable reader are interested in. And Beauty and the Beast, except that I always wanted to be the beast. So I wrote Mira, Mirror and The Princess and the Hound, retellings of old fairy tales that sometimes get me in trouble because they go so far astray. Mira, Mirror is about the mirror and Snow White has one line in the book. The Princess and the Hound doesn't seem like a retelling of Beauty and the Beast until about one hundred pages in. The fairy tales that I love best, like Sleeping Beauty, I have never written retellings of because I don't know what to do with them to make them better, to make them mine. It's the ones I can easily point to and say, I hate that, where I have both a beginning point to start retelling and a reason to go to the trouble. Because I want to make it right, better than the original.

I explain this briefly to the kids, that in order to retell a fairy tale, you have to want to fix something in the original. So I start writing on the board possible fairy tales, and what we might want to fix about them. I only allow hand raising at this point, if the student can give me both a fairy tale that is hated, and the reason WHY it is hated. Suggestions for fixing this can come from the group at large. Some examples might include:

Cinderella—I hate the fairy godmother

What could she have instead? A fairy godfather? A magic frog? A magic stick? A magic friend? A younger brother who knows magic spells? A book of magic spells?

The Little Match Girl—I hate the sad ending

How could we make the ending happy? Someone comes and helps her? She figures out the matches are magic and can keep burning forever if she blows on them and chants the magic words? She meets a character from another fairy tale who helps her.

Pinnochio—I hate the blue fairy

So who else could have the magic to make Pinnochio a real boy? Pinnochio could make himself a real boy? Gepetto's love could make him a real boy? He never becomes a real boy? The blue fairy is an evil witch who has stolen the magic from Harry Potter, who is the one who is going to use his wand to make Pinnochio real.

At this point, I will usually have to give a little speech about what is a fairy tale and what isn't a fairy tale. I don't allow retellings of Harry Potter or Fablehaven, which are frequent favorites in the classrooms I visit. However, I do allow Hans Christian Andersen (which I suppose by some strict definition isn't a fairy tale, because it was made up whole cloth rather than written down from an original folktale) or Oscar Wilde or even Peter Pan. I don't allow anything that was originally written in the last, say, fifty years. But those are my rules. Teachers can make up their own, depending on what result they want.

I guide the class through some of the results of changing one small thing in a fairy tale. If there is no fairy godmother for Cinderella, for example, and she has to use a book of magic spells herself, Cinderella is going to be a different kind of character. Instead of waiting around for others to help her, she will have to help herself. And if the stepsisters are punished by magic, as they are in some versions of the tale, then it will be Cinderella who punishes them. Some students get excited about the prospect of what sorts of horrible punishments Cinderella might mete out. Others are disturbed by the thought of Cinderella becoming different.

Now it is time to choose a fairy tale to show step by step how it can be changed, and how I would like the students to rewrite a fairy tale themselves. I ask for more suggestions, and I tend to choose a fairy tale based on which one I am interested in myself, mostly based on novelty. I like to try new things. There is more brainstorming about which fairy tales might be chosen and why, and I write them all up on the board. I think this is important modeling for kids to see how writers choose topics and start working on an idea long before they sit down to do any writing. It's a good environment with no pressure. Any idea is allowed, though I might simply choose not to write some on the board. I don't choose by allowing a vote, but I do allow some input.

Here are two examples of fairy tales I might choose and how I would show students what the vital elements of the story are and what they must include as a bare minimum when they write their own retellings.

The Gingerbread Man

1. A main character (the gingerbread man) has:

• an attractive character trait (such as being funny, being clever, or being kind)

• a desire for something new in his life (like freedom, safety, better parents, food, shelter)

• this desire must be something universal that all humans would understand and relate to

2. The main character faces three gradually more difficult obstacles in achieving his goal

• the little old woman and the little old man try to eat him

• the cow, the dog, and the cat try to eat him

• the fox tries to eat him (the fox is the most difficult of all the obstacles, not because he is stronger or bigger than the others, but because he is smarter. And also, the gingerbread man is more desperate)

3. There is often a poetic refrain which is repeated through each of the trials. In this case, it is:

Run, run as fast as you can, you can't catch me. I'm the gingerbread man.

• This refrain can be changed either in large part or in small, or it can be taken out entirely. It isn't a necessity in a fairy tale, but it can be fun to play with.

4. The end of the story must answer the question posed at the beginning of the story, namely will the main character get what he/she wants or not?

• In this case, the gingerbread man does not get what he wants. He does not get his freedom. He gets eaten by the fox.

• It is perfectly acceptable for a story to have a sad ending, but it is not acceptable for there to be no ending at all. The story must say yes or no to the main character. It can't end in the middle of nowhere.

Some of the stories that came out of the gingerbread man workshop were very basic, less than a page long. They changed small things, so that instead of a gingerbread man it was a licorice man. But still, the licorice man faced new, challenging obstacles in an environment where his odds of survival were decreasing. I felt that almost all of the students were beginning to see what a story was and how they could manipulate it to make it their own.

Another example:

The Three Little Pigs

1. The three main characters (the pigs) have:

• an attractive character trait (in this case, one that must be inferred from their choice of building materials—the pig who chooses straw is probably happy-go-lucky, while the one who chooses bricks is more of a careful thinker)

• a need that will change his life (being forced out on his own so that he must make his own way in the world)

• a community to rely on (each other)

2. The pigs face a villain who has a clear goal (to eat them) which they want to obstruct. They have three chances to do so. The stakes become higher in each case, and the certainty of the villain winning grows.

• the wolf comes to the first pig and blows down his house of straw. The pig can either be eaten or can run away, depending on the blood-thirstiness of the retelling.

• The wolf comes to the second pig and blows down his house of wood.

• The wolf comes to the third pig and tries to blow down his house of brick (the most difficult obstacle). In a way, this is a reversal of the gingerbread man story because the wolf is the one trying to get what he wants (food) and faces greater obstacles and ends up losing. It depends on who you see as the villain and who is the hero.

3. There is often a poetic refrain which is repeated through each of the trials. In this case, it is: Little pig, Little pig, let me come in. Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin. Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down. And he huffed and he puffed and he huffed and he puffed.

• This refrain can be changed either in large part or in small, or it can be taken out entirely. It isn't a necessity in a fairy tale, but it can be fun to play with.

4. The end of the story must answer the question posed at the beginning of the story, namely will the main characters get what they need? And is the villain defeated or not?

• In this case, the three pigs often end up living together happily in the house of brick. Sometimes only one of the pigs survives and it is the wolf who ends up being eaten.

• Also, the villain has to be dealt a blow sufficient that the reader knows he will not come back again or the story is not over. So, if you don't want to kill the wolf off, make it clear why he won't come back.

Some of the stories that came out of this workshop included three little sharks, three little anteaters, and so on. Others were more elaborate. Some made the wolf the main character and decided that he needed to get what he wanted (food), but not necessarily by eating the three pigs. Before I leave for the day and assign students to write their own fairy tale, I make sure that they have written down the four parts of the fairy tale that are important (really three, since the refrain isn't required.) I ask for questions, and then send them off.

When I come back a second time, it is after having read all the stories and commented on them. One of the promises I make is that I will not correct grammar or spelling. In fact, I try to make no negative comments at all. The goal is for them to see how they can expand their fairy tales, so I tend to make comments about what characters I would like to see more of, and perhaps places where I think the character's motivations are unclear. I also write reminders about the structure of the fairy tale as I've asked them to work it. Fairy tales have a basic structure that I think is a great framework for starting students out who are reluctant to write their own stories. Because they know what elements are required, they have an idea of what to do next. It's not just a blank page that they have to fill. But I also give them the license to change what they want with this assignment. It can be as simple as a few paragraphs or as complex as a whole novel, depending on the students' abilities and the teacher's interest.

Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2011 all rights reserved.
Last revised August 10, 2011.