As a library tech, one of my duties is to do an all-ages storytime twice a week. I generally gear this towards the 3-5-year-old age group as that is most commonly who attends. However, at the drop of a hat (as has happened) I have adapted for slightly younger/older. Being a male in an industry traditionally filled by women, I tend to be a novelty to some of my audience (though I think it’s far more common these days than most think it is). Thus far, this has never been negative, and quite a few caregivers have expressed their appreciation of my maleness. Just as there is a need for children to see women in roles traditionally filled by men, there is also a need for those same children to see men filling roles traditionally filled by women. I’ll be honest — I chose this vocation, not for that reason, but because I knew it was one I would love. End of story.
However, one of the challenges I face when choosing my stories is what to do when current cultural norms have shifted from classic tales. For example, Anne McGovern’s Too Much Noise, which I love, has an old man take in many animals and then at the end he just gives them away. *Smacks head* Sixteen years ago, I worked in a rescue shelter (and was gifted with my rescue dog) where I witnessed what happens first hand when people take that cavalier an attitude towards animals. This is an easy fix: at the end of the story, he takes the time to make sure every animal is transferred to a proper home. (He keeps the cat and the dog.)
Fairy tales present their own issues. Many are misogynistic, and as a male, I am always acutely aware of the messages I may be teaching my young audience. I came across this while considering Princess and the Pea, a story about a prince who is looking to marry and tests women by having them sleep on a mattress with a pea underneath it. If they don’t notice the pea, then they are not a true princess and not worthy of his attention.
Basically, this prince has reduced these women to having no value beyond that of their status in the world. It doesn’t matter if they are good people, kind, generous, have similar interests as him. (Probably because any woman in her right mind wouldn’t consider him a suitable suitor, and he’d be turned down.)
I like a challenge. As an author, it intrigues me to rewrite age-old tales for modern audiences. And we had a felt ready-made story to go along with this fairy tale.
This particular day, my regular 20 kids showed up. Moments before beginning the story, one of my coworkers leaned into our story barn (yes, we have a story barn!) and asked me to wait as there was a preschool group coming into the library to join us. Add another 20 kids so they were seated even outside the barn. It did occur to me that not only would parents hear my revamped story, but so also would the preschool teachers.
I started the story by telling them it was “Princess and the Pea,” but one that they may not have heard before. You see, this Prince was a young boy who was playing prince but was all alone. He never had anyone to play with and wished that he did. Along came a young girl who’s mother was a friend of the family, and she would be staying with them for awhile. As a joke, the boy placed a single pea under her mattress.
This pea made her mattress quite uncomfortable, so she asked him nicely for another mattress. And then another, and another. (The kids then counted the mattresses up to ten.) Each time she asked, she said “please” and “thank you.” In fact, she was so kind that he apologized for putting the pea under her mattress.
Because she said “please” and “thank you”, and because he said “sorry” when he had done something not very nice, they became the best of friends. And they played a prince and princess who, together, had many adventures throughout the land.
Everyone in the audience enjoyed my Princess and the Pea story, and I will definitely be telling it again.