Deirdre Moore | June 2014

Once Upon a Time: Empowering Children through Fairy Tales

Empowering Children To Know No Bounds

I am a sucker for fairy tales, always have been, ever since my 5th grade teacher regularly read them to my class – no illustrations, no Disney-ized cleaned up versions.  She read to us from the real deal Grimm collection with all its darkness.  So, naturally, when I saw the movie Maleficent advertised I knew I had to to see it. It was perfect timing too since I am currently steeped in fairy tales as my second graders work on their theatrical interpretations of the some of the classics including Sleeping Beauty/Little Briar Rose.

As I sat back and began to revel in the sheer beauty of the movie, the story of one of fairy tale’s most notorious villains began to unfold and I knew I was in for a treat.  I love to hear a good back story but this movie went beyond that.  It turned the whole story of Sleeping Beauty on its ear in such a gratifying way.  I left full of feelings of the possibility for “happily ever after” and redemption.  It was like seeing the imagination of a child manifested by adult skill, technical know-how, life experience, and literary understanding. It was the opportunity for empowering children through fairy tales.

I started to wonder about the creator of such a screenplay.  This was written by someone who knew her fairy tales.  As soon as I got home, I looked her up.  Her name is Linda Woolverton and Maleficent is not her first fairy tale screenplay.  That was Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

While that was a more traditional telling, Woolverton did take a liberated approach to the development of Belle’s character that made her book-smart and brave, offering herself in place of her father rather than being part of a deal demanded by the beast.  In writing the story of Maleficent from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Woolverton takes many more liberties with the original fairy tale.  As much as I love the traditional versions, I also love reinterpretations, reinventions, and parodies (think of the stage musical Into the Woods!) and Maleficent is no exception.

What really got me excited upon reflection was the fact that I realized by having our students study fairy tales, identify and understand common elements, and create their own versions of those tales we are empowering these children to do just what Woolverton did.  We help the students to understand a genre and then give them permission to reinterpret it.

We empower them to look at the world as it is and imagine how it could be.  We help them to step into another’s shoes and develop empathy.  We teach them to ask why things are the way they are and challenge them to answer that question themselves.  We help them wonder, “what if” and encourage them to explore the possibilities.

The arts have a unique ability to empower people.  Once you have created something original, something of your very own, and you realize you have that capacity you are no longer destined to be a consumer.  You do not have to accept things as they are.  You can change them.

Once upon a time, Linda Woolverton experienced fairy tales and somehow she learned that she could reenvision them.  She felt empowered to make those tales her own and tell a new story she felt compelled to share with the world.  Through the arts, we educators can help children gain that empowerment.   And maybe, just maybe, this can help us all live a little more happily ever after.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.