We’ve been talking about fairy tales in 2nd grade this spring, and it’s a surprisingly hard thing to define. I’ve been reading piles of information, ideas, suggestions from other librarians, etc. about how to define fairy tales. I know one when I see one, but how do you explain that to 7-year-olds? Most resources suggest that fairy tales are a subgenre of folktales. So I’d start defining a folktale as a story passed down for generations, I’d explain to the kids how years and years ago not everyone was taught to read and write, we keep them in nonfiction because they tell us about the places they came from, etc. We talked a lot about how folktales don’t have authors because they’ve been around so long that we don’t know who first invented the story. So when you look at books of folktales, they’ll say “Retold by” or “Edited by” instead of “Written by.”

They understood this, and then I told them that a fairy tale is a kind of folktale that has magic, fairies, talking animals, royalty, often starts “Once Upon a Time” and ends “Happily Ever After,” and that the stories have been around for years and years. We talked about how lots of them have a lesson for us to learn, or they have a villain that needs to fight the hero, or there is a maiden who needs to be rescued. A lot of them have a big, bad wolf. So they came up with the stories Rapunzel, Cinderella, The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, and a few others.

Then it got sticky. They would ask if Cat in the Hat was a fairy tale because of the talking cat, and I’d tell them that we know who wrote The Cat in the Hat (and they all call out “Dr. Seuss!”), and it hasn’t really been around long enough to be a fairy tale. So I’d ask them to remember what we talked about concerning authors. So they’d think hard about stories they know have a million different versions and fit the general rules of a fairy tale. They’d name a story that is, indeed a fairy tale, but it would be written by Hans Christian Andersen or Charles Perrault. So we know the author, which blows that criteria away. Then that gets even trickier because it’s not necessarily their original story (like with the Brothers Grimm), they just made it popular or adapted it from an earlier story. But they are sometimes credited as the authors.

And my mind reeled and reeled. I had 2nd graders stopping me in the hall for days before spring break, naming a story they think is a fairy tale, and asking if they were right. Shrek? Well, that’s a Fractured Fairy Tale; we’ll get to those. Why isn’t The Tale of Despereaux a fairy tale? Hmmm…it has all the pieces, and we read quite a bit of it out loud together this year. I thought, “It’s totally a fairy tale, what’s more fairy tale-like than Despereaux?!” I decided it was a modern fairy tale, which means it’s inspired (had to define “inspired”) by fairy tales, but we know who wrote it so it’s not quite the same. These second graders pull out the best, most challenging questions for me. I love it, and it keeps me on my toes when I figure out how to answer.

So I basically stuck to the idea that they’ve been around for a long time, we don’t know who made them up but sometimes we know the first person to write them down, there are often different versions from all different parts of the world (all the versions of Cinderella, for example, a few of which we’re reading this week) so they live in nonfiction, and then I reminded them of everything else I’d told them about magic, talking animals, fairies, princesses, etc. They’re 7, going into the subtle differences is something that noted scholars are still arguing about. I kept it simple, and we’re having a great time with it.

I made up a Three Little Pigs game for the library that has been played to various levels of success. The problem is that they can’t run in the library, but it’s the kind of game where kids run, and problems ensue as chairs are knocked over and so are 2nd graders. So I’m holding off on playing it again until the weather is officially nice enough to go outside without coats, and then I’m taking these munchkins outside to do it (I absolutely adore 2nd grade). I made 3 bases, “Straw”, “Sticks”, and “Bricks.” One student is picked to be the Wolf. They walk around the 3 “houses” until the Wolf yells “Hide!” Only 5 kids can be “safe” in the brick house at any one time, and I tag them as they come over to “Bricks.” The other kids must choose between “Sticks” and “Straw,” and the Wolf decides which one he’ll blow down. Then everyone has to go around again, same thing, until we’re down to 5 kids. When there are 5 kids left, only 1 can make it to “Bricks” and be safe, and that child is the winner and the new Wolf. They love it, we just need to play it away outside so they can really run around.