For the past two years, I have been the head “Library Mommy” at my daughter’s private nursery school. The children tell me what books they have or have not read, what books they have at home, and what interests them in the school’s library. The nursery school is full of bright, lively, privileged children. They take lessons in ballet, gymnastics, swimming, and lead busy, carefully scheduled lives. Their parents attended good colleges and are, by the world’s standards, successful. And yet, if you were to visit the children’s bedrooms to explore their libraries, you might be surprised at what you find there: limited and unimaginative collections often dominated by Walt Disney, Berenstain Bears, and Sesame Street. For most of these children, for instance, their only acquaintance with the classic children’s fairy tales comes from Disney. But what my daughter calls “the Disney version” bears very little resemblance to the original.
Compare two versions of the beginning of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, one faithful to the original and translated by Neil Philip, the other taken from Disney’s famous movie and book.
1) Far out to sea the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower and as clear as the purest glass; but is deep, deeper than any anchor can reach. Countless church steeples would have to be piled one on top of the other to stretch from the sea bed to the surface. That’s where the sea folk live.
2) Ariel was sixteen, the age when a mermaid was supposed to be thinking about marrying a merboy and settling down. But Ariel had other things on her mind.
Guess which is which. Disney books never mention the original author (in this case Andersen), nor do they say anywhere who is responsible for the text. These books credit only Walt Disney Pictures and make no pretense to be anything other than marketing tools for their movies. But a child who is fed a steady diet of such deadly, banal sentences can hardly be expected to create anything other than deadly, banal sentences.
There are more substantive problems, too. For instance, Disney books always name all the characters; thus, the little mermaid becomes Ariel. Why didn’t Andersen name his little mermaid? Why are some fairy tale characters named and others not? Surely it is not by accident. Names bestow familiarity and specificity. Ariel is just another girl, like you or me, accessible, one of the gang. The little mermaid, however, remains mysterious, but also in some real way closer to the reader—she could indeed be me. Because she has no name, she could have any name. Because she is not named Ariel, she could, in my imagination, be Kari. Nameless, she is both essentially mysterious as a mermaid and truly universal.
Already in these opening sentences one can see the thought police at work. Ariel is not interested in merboys (whatever they are) or in settling down. She has bigger fish to fry: fulfillment, empowerment, self-realization . . . Disney to the rescue! By contrast, here is Andersen’s description of the little mermaid: “She was a strange child, quiet and thoughtful . . . she would have cried, but a mermaid has no tears, and so she suffers all the more.”
This complex character finds herself, in Andersen’s version, in an equally complex situation. The little mermaid longs to see what lies above the ocean. When she finally gets her chance, she rescues a Prince whose ship has capsized. She falls in love, but, because she is a mermaid, must return to the ocean. In the original, the little mermaid questions her grandmother about the upper world.
“If human beings are not drowned, do they live forever?” she asked. “Or do they die, as we do in the sea?”
“Yes,” said the old lady, “they must die. And their lives are far shorter than ours. We can live for three hundred years, but at the end we just turn to foam on the water . . . . We do not have immortal souls; there is no new life for us. We’re like the green reeds—once they are cut, they will never be green again. But human beings have a soul which lives forever, even after their body has turned to dust . . . . Only if a human loved you more than his father and mother, and thought only of you, and let a priest take his right hand and put it in yours, while he promised to be true to you for all eternity, then his soul would flow into you, and you would share in human happiness. He would give you a soul, yet still keep his own.”
To win the Prince’s love and gain an immortal soul, the little mermaid resolves to visit the Sea Witch. There she exchanges her beautiful voice for two human legs, even as the Sea Witch warns her that if she fails in her quest, and the Prince marries another, her “heart will break and [she] will be nothing but foam on the water.”
Needless to say, there is no mention of immortal souls, sea foam, eternity, priests, or even marriage in the Disney book. Instead, Ariel, empowered female, sits crying in her ocean room, when the Sea Witch (now called Ursula) shows up to tempt her. “Sign this contract. It says that I agree to make you a human for three days . . . . If, after three days, Prince Eric does not love you, has not kissed you . . . you belong to me!” Notice how the stakes have been diminished: our girl just needs a kiss. Not only does this new, improved, politically correct version take away most of the motivation for her sacrifice, it also removes the conscious choice and effort required to visit the Sea Witch. Disney turns Ariel into just another desperate girl trying to find affection.
In the original ending, the Prince marries another girl whom he mistakenly believes had saved him during the storm. (The little mermaid has no voice to tell him it was she who had brought him to safety.) Her mermaid sisters appear to give her one last chance.
We have given our hair to the sea witch, so that she would help us to save your life. She has given us this knife. See how sharp it is! Before the sun rises you must plunge it into the prince’s heart. When his warm blood splashes over your feet they will join together into a fishtail, and you will be a mermaid once more.
But the little mermaid sees the Prince sleeping with his bride, kisses him on the brow, and flings the knife into the sea. She throws herself into the ocean expecting to die, when she is met by hundreds of transparent creatures, the daughters of the air.
“You, poor little mermaid, have striven with all your heart. You have suffered, and endured, and have raised yourself into the world of the spirits of the air. Now, by three hundred years of good deeds, you can make yourself an immortal soul.” And the little mermaid raised her translucent arms to the sun, and for the first time she shed a tear.
The Disney ending is, in contrast, simply ludicrous: Ariel gets her voice back from some birds at the crucial moment; Ursula reappears to steal Ariel from Eric; Eric kills Ursula, and they all live happily ever after. No search, no choice, no sacrifice, no sorrow, no redemption, no truth. And lousy prose. This is the stuff on which we are raising our children.
Lest this become a diatribe against Disney, I hasten to mention that the same kind of tampering with time-tested tales occurs in all sorts of venues. There is, in Central Park, an exquisite little marionette theater devoted to performing children’s literature. We have attended two birthday parties there, one featuring Gulliver’s Travels, another Jack and the Beanstalk. Both times, I was thrilled with the charming puppets and lovely sets. But after a few minutes, my delight (and the children’s attention) started to fade. The directors had introduced silly, extraneous characters, included inappropriate modern references, and, most egregiously, altered the narrative to the point of nonsense. To the extent that the plays followed the beautiful, powerful lines of the original tales, the children sat quietly entranced. At the precise moments that the tales diverged, they became restive and distracted. They knew, far more clearly than their parents and the puppeteers, what worked and what did not.
But it is in the schools that perhaps the deepest confusion exists about the purposes of children’s literature. This year my husband and I attended several open houses at top-ranked private schools. At some of these events, tables for each grade were set up with frequently used materials, books read, and work produced. Very few of the classic children’s books were in evidence. Instead, the children were reading books chosen not because they were beautifully written or had stood the test of time, but because of their relationship to “appropriate” subject matter. In the lower grades at least, books were seldom understood as literature; they were merely aids to teaching social studies.
The nursery school my daughter attends does its best to promote good literature, but even there the thought police have triumphed. When my daughter brought in Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, perhaps the most exquisite of all fairy tales, I was cautioned against letting her bring in a book that mentioned God. (“‘You have rightly chosen,’ said God, ‘for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.’”)
But it’s Oscar Wilde, I said, thinking surely his credentials as famous playwright and famous homosexual would mitigate against the regrettable God matter. Apparently, however, many parents had complained whenever the subject of God had come up at school. The Happy Prince need not apply.
Parents regularly express concern about violence and death in books, about anything that could be considered scary, and they do an enormous amount of censoring at home. TV time is limited, junk food is banned. These are careful, concerned parents. But few seem equally concerned about the dangers of trivial stories and bad prose.
Children need to hear beautiful language if they are to speak and write beautifully. They need to hear stories of love and courage and joy and sorrow so their imaginations are fired and their hearts expanded. They need to hear the language of Rudyard Kipling, the whimsy of A. A. Milne, the sorrow of Oscar Wilde, the mystery of Hans Christian Andersen, the wisdom of E. B. White, the terror of the Brothers Grimm, the wildness of Dr. Suess . . . there is no shortage of magnificent children’s literature. Children have little enough time for reading in their busy, scheduled lives. When they read, or when they listen, what we give them should be worthy of their eager, wondering minds and souls.
Kari Jenson Gold is a writer living in New York City.