Fairy Tale Lessons
by Steve Bracci
I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing.
I’m sitting at the Village Deli across the table from Dr. Walter Evans, Fulbright Scholar, playwright, award-winning faculty member—one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. He’s introduced generations of students at Georgia Regents University to Homer, Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare, enriched students’ understanding of Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, served as an incisive critic of students’ own writing. And now, uncharacteristically ignoring the plate heaped with his lunch, his voice booming with excitement, he is extolling the genius of…Peter Rabbit.
It’s brilliant, he says. He used to assign it as a model to his writing students at ASU. “There are so few words, but they’re so perfect. Some of them are simple, almost innocuous. But then, when Peter is caught in a net by the buttons on his jacket, the sparrows ‘implored him to exert himself.’” Evans explodes with huge goose-like honking, his signature laugh, which can be heard and recognized everywhere on the Summerville campus and, depending on the wind, up to a mile beyond.
“Who can’t love Peter Rabbit? Peter Rabbit steals all that stuff from Mr. McGregor’s garden, but we’re with him 100 percent. He’s just a typical little boy. He wants to have fun, so what his mother tells him not to do, it’s the first thing he wants to do. And everything’s great, he’s getting away with it! Maybe he ate a bit much and got a tummy ache so he’s feeling bad, then Mr. McGregor comes after him and he jumps in the watering can so he gets all wet and that stinks, and the guy’s trying to kill him, and he tries to get back, but he doesn’t know how to get back, then he sees the gate, but Mr. McGregor is standing right by the gate—‘How am I going to get through the gate?’”
Spoiler alert: Eventually, of course, Peter gets home and is forced to take a dose of chamomile tea for losing his jacket and for disobeying his mother. “It’s a happy ending in the sense that he doesn’t get killed, but everything goes wrong and we’ve all been there.” Long pause. “We’ve all been there.”
That’s exactly the point. We have all been bad. We have all been in trouble. We have all disappointed those we love. We have all suffered the consequences of bad decisions. But kids don’t realize that yet. Classic children’s stories and rhymes present the good and bad of life to children in a form they can understand and enjoy.
But there are also huge benefits to children beyond life lessons: The evidence is overwhelming that children who grow up hearing these stories read are much more likely to succeed in school than children who don’t get read to. Kids who hear these rhymes and stories develop vocabulary and language skills that help make them readers and learners.
Unfortunately too many kids in the Augusta area never get read to, never bounce to the rhythms of Mother Goose, never experience Goldilocks or Hansel and Gretel or Peter Rabbit except in TV cartoons, and that cannot begin to open the doors of a child’s imagination the way words on a page and a parent’s voice can.
language skills that help make them readers and learners.
“It’s no surprise to anyone that declining reading scores have paralleled children’s declining experience with those texts,” Evans says. The rise of such sensually stimulating, image-oriented media as TV, computers and video games have replaced children’s opportunities “to hear, memorize or read the sorts of verbally rich texts that our culture had evolved to help children learn what they most needed, most wanted and most enjoyed learning.”
Rather than be a hand-wringing Chicken Little (“The reading scores are falling! The reading scores are falling!”) Evans was determined to do something about it. He planned to record nursery rhymes and fairy tales on discs and distribute them to pre-Ks and Kindergartens for free. Then Kindergarten teachers convinced him to expand beyond audio CDs to DVDs containing not just voice but the text and illustrations too.
Undeterred by the growing task (“I think I can, I think I can!”), Evans gathered scores of readers—students, colleagues, friends and local actors, scheduled studio time for recording sessions, selected and distributed texts, found and commissioned art work, got copyright permissions, directed hundreds of hours of recording sessions, wrote grant proposals, negotiated with school districts and collected and analyzed data.
Volunteers were generous with their time, but there were still bills to pay. Fired with missionary zeal (“Who will help me bake my cake?”), Evans bankrolled the whole project out of his own pocket until it grew beyond his means. Then he received grants from PotashCorp, the Richmond County Board of Education and an anonymous donor. Now eight years after the first fairy tale was recorded, 34,200 discs have been distributed—enough for every Kindergarten and pre-K student, teacher and media center in 14 surrounding counties, with another 200 discs for libraries. Each disc contains 10 hours of audio, plus pictures and text. Not one to puff over his success, he might be forgiven for an occasional, “I KNEW I could!”
The whole project is available online at www.hearatale.com, thanks to a state Improving Teacher Quality grant, so you don’t need a disc to experience it. Take a look. Online you’ll have access to 52 stories, which last more than eight hours, hundreds of rhymes that cover two more hours, texts and hundreds of pictures. “These constitute not a digital book, but a digital library,” Evans writes in comments at the site. (The online site also contains many hours of readings for high school and college students and adults: classic authors of American, British and world literature.)
What could possess a college literature professor with 42 years of teaching at the Summerville campus to devote so much time, energy and money to these children’s texts? “It’s a circle. As a kid I loved reading and being read to, and that led me into this profession. I really feel like I’m circling back to the place where it all started.”
kids think the stories and rhymes are just plain fun.
Thanks to that circling back, even kids handicapped by poverty, even kids in homes without books, even kids whose parents lack the resources or the time to read to them can encounter the rich verbal and imaginative experiences our culture has handed down from generation to generation.
The stories range from the two-minute-long fables of Aesop, with their short sentences and simple syntax, to more complex stories up to 22 minutes long.
So does it work? Will kids listen to these voices on the disc, follow along with the written text? And if they do, will it make a difference?
Well 459 local Kindergarten students who regularly listened to these recordings at home and sometimes in class improved their vocabulary scores an average of 20 points (from the 27th to the 47th percentile), compared to a control group of 283 Kindergarten students from the same school system who weren’t exposed to the discs.
But quite aside from developing students’ verbal skills and love of reading, kids think the stories and rhymes are just plain fun. Evans even created a game, Rhyme a Zoo, for them to play. They answer questions about the nursery rhymes they are listening to and earn coins with which they purchase animals for their private zoo, moving from level to level until they can finally acquire dinosaurs.
Of course, these rhymes and stories haven’t survived because they prepare children for school. Children love them because they speak to their own dreams and fears. Each story becomes, Evans says, a kind of “magic spell” that heals kids’ wounds.
“Even the most secure children fear abandonment in ways few adults recognize or understand. But Hansel and Gretel understand. And they do suffer. But even so these two children learn to rely on themselves and manage to persevere and triumph—and they allow every boy and every girl to imaginatively identify with that success. Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk and Sleeping Beauty and Peter Rabbit and Rumplestiltskin and Molly Whuppie target quite different psychological needs, which is one reason each child has favorites and why—as psychological needs change—a child’s favorites will change.”
Evans is a little surprised at the stories kids like most. “I would have thought kids would like The Tortoise and the Hare, but they don’t like it that much. The stories they like most, at the child’s level, are tragedies. For instance, they like The Boy Who Cried Wolf. The way that story ends in our version no one ever believes him again and he feels very lonely and he has to go live in another town. You’d think a kid would always want happy ending. But the stories that the kids show an interesting predilection for are those where the central character is transgressive, naughty. What kids find interesting are stories about people like them, people who aren’t as good as they should be.
“I have so much respect for classic children’s literature because it tells the truth. We tend to be so protective of kids, to want them to be safe, to have stories that always have a happy ending—but there’s a subversive truth in so many of these stories.”
Which brings us back to Peter Rabbit. At first look, this is no more than a sweetly amusing little adventure story. But in the pleasant form of Mr. McGregor’s garden, little Peter carries the child into the world of temptation and its dangerous consequences. On the disc, Evans—father of three and grandfather of two—narrates this one, very deliberately, himself.
Jim Garvey, a professor emeritus at GRU, retired from his myriad of esteemed duties in 2009. He is enjoying a more leisurely pace but still manages to miss deadlines.