A Retelling of Childhood

All of us have grown up with stories and tales aplenty - that our parents, grandparents and older siblings used to read to us. I had a little corner in my chest of drawers where I kept my A-3 sized colourfully illustrated books about the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Thumbelina, Cinderella and many others. I would take out one copy of those thin, 15-paged books and ask someone to read them to me or even give it a go at reading myself. 

As a kid, I was fascinated with that world and maybe still haven’t lost my touch with it - because who doesn’t enjoy a good Disney movie and some hot chocolate to go with it? Disney is one such institution that has cemented and eternalised the stories that were written hundreds of years ago for children, now told and retold through years, they have changed into a different form - liked by people of all age groups. 

A while back, I came across the writer behind these beloved stories - Hans Christian Anderson. Even though he revolutionised the world of storytelling through his selected works like - The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen (now adapted into the Disney production of Frozen) and The Ugly Duckling - his work is criticised for being unfit for children. Now that his work, that dates back to 1835, has been adapted into so many plays, productions and movies, one would think that he used to write perfect fairy tales for a blissful childhood. However, the truth is a bit far from that. Anderson is known for his dark and bitter tales that were written for children but without any filters - just blatant truth and atrocities staring oneself in the face. 

Anderson was born and raised in Denmark in a poor family to a shoemaker father and an illiterate washerwoman mother. Still, he persisted with his education at the local school for the poor, and at night used to listen to the tales of the Arabian Nights from his father. He had a rough go at childhood and had to move out and provide for himself at an early age - the pain of which is reflected in his early-written pieces. The first and original edition of his stories is unlike the retold versions of them in many ways. For starters, his stories were not as happy-go-lucky as we see them now to be. The Little Mermaid, a classic tale of love and redemption, was actually a disturbing and morbid tale about a mermaid who makes a diabolical bargain with a sea witch and suffers her tongue to be cut out and her tail to be lost, all for the love of a prince. Unfortunately, he completely fails to recognise the enormity of her sacrifice and love for him.

The Disney film adaption of this tale was morphed into a story about love which always unites, as Ariel and Eric get together in the end, and she leaves her world to be with him. Even though Anderson’s story was bitter, it was realistic because it told you that life doesn’t always give you what or whom you desire, and that it’s not okay to give up your life and the things that make you who you are for anyone - because that never ends well. It reflected that no sacrifice will get you eternal love but maybe patience, time and consent would. Even the tale of Thumbelina was that of grave pain and a torturous existence, unlike the popular idea.

I might not have understood that as a kid, but if something is repeatedly told, from a young age then it can have an impact on you in many ways. The debate around protecting kids from bad and traumatic things is acceptable and justified, but only as long as the truth is harmful to them. If not, even kids have a right to be exposed to the right and wrong of life, to disappointment and failure - so that they learn to take something from it instead of thinking of it as the end. A lot of Anderson’s stories were changed for this reason alone. Because his stories did not twist the truth into entangled sentences about a utopian world but told them things that everyone should know - the reality of this harsh world.

Not only Anderson’s, but many of children’s tales and stories are moulded according to what adults deem right; in fact, some are banned or censored too. A children’s book by the name of And Tango Makes Three written by Parnell and Richardson was published in 2005, after a real-life incident that occurred in the Central Park Zoo of New York, where two male, chinstrap penguins, Roy and Silo fell in love. The book tells the story of these two male penguins who

create a family together. With the help of the zookeeper, Mr Gramsay, Roy and Silo are given an egg which they help hatch. The female chick, that completes their family, is consequently named 'Tango' by the zookeepers. 

This book wasn’t received well by many parents, because according to them, homosexuality in animals suggested homosexuality in humans as well. They argued that they weren’t able to explain to their kids as to why “a male penguin has a baby with another male penguin instead of a mommy penguin”. After retaliation from parents across the world, the book was consequently banned in Singapore, Hong Kong and places across the United States, like Utah, Missouri and Massachusetts.

It is these ingrained notions and our discomfort with the truth that anything different from what we consider ‘normal’, we try to hide from kids instead of having a conversation with them which they might be completely open to.</p>

The question that wavers in my mind is, ‘how much of reality is too much’ to be introduced to children? The reason those stories were changed is that it was considered unfit and inappropriate for a child’s brains. Which might be true from one vantage point, however, why must children be veiled from the realities of the world until a certain age only to be exposed to them suddenly at one go? What is really the right age to see the world in its face? 

I’ve always wondered how fair it is to concoct a picture of a world that only disappoints you when you grow up. One, it creates unreal expectations from the world and two, it teaches you things that should be shattered as a concept early on while growing up - be it a princess being saved by the valiant hero at the end, kissing someone without their consent (The Sleeping Beauty) or having to be perfect for people to like you. 

I go back and forth in my mind as to why we think of children as weak or want to shield them from the truth? According to many child psychologists, the impulse to protect kids from unpleasant facts is similar to the self-esteem fad practised by educators. The idea rests on the assumption, not backed by any evidence, that high self-esteem must lead to high academic achievement. Similarly, the instinct to protect children from anything unpleasant is simply out of one’s idea of what a child should and shouldn’t know. 

But if one asks themselves, is this reality protecting your child from long-term pain or is just an area of discussion that you don’t want to deal with, or better answer, and so you choose what is convenient - that is, to digress, to lie and to manoeuvre. You leave your children to figure out the jarring and upsetting realities of life by themselves as they grow up. And more often than not, the sources through which your children consume all the things that were hidden from them during their nascent years are not the most reliable or truthful sources. Thus, as we grow up, we are ambushed with facts and to find answers to them we tend to rely on treacherous sources which skew our ideas all the more. Instead of nurturing our kids with righteousness and practicality from the beginning, we try to mask them from facts, for as long as possible - which might not help them as much as one would hope. 

The thing about the ‘real’ world is that unlike fairytales, it’s flawed and filled with imperfections. Which is what drives life ahead, the little or large hiccups in the flow of life. From Anderson’s stories to the truth about sexuality, identity, religion and relationships - a lot is made inconspicuous for the kids so that the information dissemination is controlled according to the norms that we have constructed and reaches them in a palatable form. But the question remains: who gets to decide what is right or wrong for these kids? Are flowery stories with morals sieved through our model of heteronormativity, appropriate culture and paradigms of acceptable behaviour the way to go about raising our kids? Only to impel them later into a world where they stumble as they go through life deconstructing their thoughts and knowledge, indoctrinated throughout childhood and then rebuilding it in a frenzy of emotions.

I wonder if it would’ve been better, had my parents read me stories of women who didn’t enforce ideals of self-sacrifice to find the truest form of love or tales of women and people in general, who didn’t settle for anything less than what they deserved, did not change themselves only to be accepted by society, and stories that told that life’s utmost purpose was not to find a perfect partner but to find yourself. And in the process of that, you will meet people who will make life worthwhile. But not one of the stories told us, that it is very much okay, even if you don’t. Because in life, there is no blueprint or algorithm like in stories - all the milestones of life are supposed to make your journey easier and not all the more pressurizing. So the moral of this article is maybe that it is okay to chart your own path - because if you find yourself not fitting in with any of the existing stories, you can always write a new one.


Poorvi Gupta

A struggling student at Delhi University, pursuing Economics honours. You'll find me mostly hibernating, during while I read and write. I love everything old, be it books, music or buildings.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.