Back to School with Old Tales


If you haven’t figured it out yet, I will tell you…I adore the illustrations in old children’s books. The woodcuts are fantastic. The images can be creepy and fun. Most of all they are just plain beautiful. Ahh, but what about the stories that they highlight? Recently I have been paying more attention to those and they too are fun.

The artifact:

1911 School book










How many kids actually cracked open a book this past summer? Raise your hands? Oh, I am sure there are many, but I also bet there are way fewer than in the past. Why is that? You know the answers; the kids are glued to videos, on-line games, social media, etc. Sitting still and reading a book is not very exciting. How and when did that happen? Have the publishers and society softened up the original fairy tales and folk tales to the point they are boring? Censored out the violence and edited long versions to save space?

What would our ancestors think of that? I have an older Irish friend who I love to talk about the old myths with. His take on them is that many were told to children to keep them safe. If you wander off, you might be grabbed by the Fairies! (Stranger danger warning). Another example is don’t eat that mushroom, it has bad magic (and will probably make you sick or kill you!). Those stories go along with the old children’s rhymes and stories I remember, such as “Along Came a Spider.” The story tells of a girl who is scared and runs away from a spider. Well, isn’t that a good thing? There are many spiders that will make you sick or cause harm.

Speaking of which…here is a good example of cutting short an old version. When I opened this 1911 Reader passed on by my family, I was surprised to find there was more to the “Spider” story.

Here is the poem as most of us know it. This was scanned from a new edition of “The Classic Volland Edition, Mother Goose” 1971 by Rand-McNally and Co., illustrated by Frederick Richardson.









Now here is the 1911 version!







I can see your brain wheels spinning now. What other old stories and rhymes from your childhood actually had hidden warnings?

Besides the touch of violence in the old kid’s lit, the other cool thing was that they were part of every day curriculum and easy to remember with their catchy “tunes”.










In the back of this Reader is a section for teachers. It points out the benefit of making reading fun and the use of repetition to help children learn words. I’m not a hundred years old, but I can vouch that I learned many Mother Goose rhymes from my childhood and I can still recite them, so I guess their wisdom was correct. Do they still teach those rhymes to children? What a waste if they don’t.

In this same book is one of my all time favorite stories: The Gingerbread Man. My guess is most young children now only know about the Gingerbread Man from the “Shrek” movies. The original tale is full of frolic and violence and a moral lesson. Sure, go ahead and be a proud braggart, but you will get your come-up-ums in the end! It also contains one of the best little “tunes” : “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!” I wonder how many games of Tag that sparked!

Here is the tale from the 1911 Reader.























I have to confess, I much prefer this ending found in other books:…….

The Gingerbread Man laughed and laughed, until he came to a river. “Oh no!” he cried, “They will catch me. How can I cross the river?”

A sly fox came out from behind a tree. “I can help you cross the river,” said the fox. “Jump on to my tail and I will swim across.”

“You won’t eat me, will you?’” said the gingerbread man.

“Of course not,’ said the fox. “I just want to help.”

The gingerbread man climbed on the fox’s tail. Soon the gingerbread man began to get wet.

“Climb onto my back,” said the fox. So the gingerbread man did.

As he swam the fox said, “You are too heavy. I am tired. Jump onto my nose.” So the gingerbread man did as he was told.

No sooner had they reached the other side, than the fox tossed the gingerbread man up in the air. He opened his mouth and ‘Snap!’ that was the end of the gingerbread man.


I don’t know which ending came first, or why it was changed. There are even more endings if you search it on the Internet. The one above will remain my favorite.

This brings us back to children of today. When you are trapped with them in the car, conjure up some of these rhymes from your childhood and teach them to your kids. Don’t let the fun old ones die away. They were passed on through the ages for a reason, be it to keep kids safe, or to teach our beautiful language.

And when you stop for a break, play Gingerbread Man Tag!

For older children, hit up the library and find an old musty copy of original uncensored Brothers Grimm tales, or Classic stories and read them together-scary or not. If anything, they will at least be able to converse about how modern movies and television series are stealing from those story-lines.

Lastly, you will at least have shown them wonderful old illustrations and introduce them to literature that has endured for centuries. Will they be able to say that about the popular children’s stories being written now?









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