Once Upon a Time, My Sister Was Such a Jerk…

When we were on our glorious and much-missed vacation, we moseyed on over to the delightful local library. And what a library it was. Cool and orderly, with numerous comfortable spots to curl up with the book of your choice. The children's section was in a whole separate room, so people could read aloud to the clamoring hordes and not disturb anyone. And downstairs was a large, spooky, wonderful, empty space that housed their "book sale," along with a wooden checkers set where Chestnut and I fought a long bloody battle. (Figuratively, of course.)

Being the lazy irresponsible relaxed parent of a 12-year-old and a 10-year-old, I was chilling out on a soft chair in the kid's room, waiting for people to make their selections, when a beleaguered mother of three, count 'em three, kids showed up. All 5 or under. They were (inadvertently) torturing her, the littlest guy smacking the other guy on the head with a wooden train, the 4 or maybe 5-year-old girl begging for a story to be read aloud, no not later now, NOW NOW NOW. It was, you know, life, and I pretty much tuned out (it may be that I had a beer with lunch). And when I tuned back in, here is what I heard:

"…and their mother always favored the older daughter, and never the younger. To her older daughter she gave the choicest morsels, and the finest clothes, while the younger daughter had to subsist on scraps from their table and torn rags. The younger daughter was forced to wait on and serve the mother and her elder sister, and never received a kind word from either. When they beat her…."

You can pretty much tell how it went from there. And I don't know if this is a consequence of having missed that essential "Once upon a time" but BOY did it strike me: this is actually how most kids see their lives. It sounded like many a wailing complaint I've heard (or given, in my own youth). It sounded, more than anything, so unbelievably whiny. It made me think of fairy tales in a different light; it's all about point of view, which I guess I always knew but somehow never fully grasped. If you hear "Once upon a time," you somehow accept that you're in a world with a voice of truth: the one you're hearing. But omitting that framing omniscience, for me at least, gave me a crazy new window onto what the story actually was: it's not FAIR! writ large.

I've written before about siblings and unfairness in stories, but it never struck me before how one-sided the stories can be. I suppose this is the seed for all those modern responses: Wicked and Mirror, Mirror and the like. I don't know if I will ever be able to hear a fairy-tale in that truly believing way I once did.

Has this happened to anyone else? Are fairy-tales so appealing for kids because they echo their visions of an unfair world?

5 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time, My Sister Was Such a Jerk…

  1. I always saw fairy tales as the kid’s version of the biblical “meek shall inherit the earth” sort of thing. I can imagine that long ago, when the eldest child inherited the land or the cow or whatever, the younger sibling might be able to take a bit of weak comfort in these stories. Or maybe they were all made up by younger (and bitter) siblings. Wonder how the Grimm brothers dealt with hearing this theme over and over – perhaps they were twins!
    I think it makes perfect sense that children would respond to stories which not only echo but exaggerate the weak position they often find themselves in, and then offer a conclusion in which riches are heaped upon them while their horrible siblings/parents suffer immense cruelties (or at least a good bout of jealousy) for their crimes. Now I’m trying to think of fairy tales that *don’t* involve this sort of thing… Snow White and Rose Red is the only one I can list right now. There have to be others!


  2. I think you’re right, they play into kiddos’ vision of a completely unfair world.
    I guess you can’t blame them, too much – they don’t have too much control over their destinies, where they live, if their parents are cruel or kind or present, even what haircut they have, they don’t control!….etc.
    I’m not saying that setup needs to change, I’m just sayin’ – that could be why stories of “kids in completely UNFAIR situations, who somehow triumph” appeal to them. 🙂


  3. I guess I have never thought of this perspective, but holy heck does it make sense. I love this blog so much. You continually stretch my thinking and the “commenters”are awesome too! Thanks people!


  4. Oh yes. I’m sure. And the grown-ups always let them down or turn out to be monsters.
    You should read Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. It was the best middle grades book I read this year by far. It was also the most gruesome book adult or kid that I read this year.


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