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When The Sky Is Falling… How Do You Tell Your Kids?

Our public library is now in regular and highly anticipated rotation. We take both kids, and we walk out of there with ridiculous piles of children’s books.

I never noticed this before, but in reading aloud to my two trusting and sheltered preschoolers, I’ve realized that many classic tales and fables are kind of violent.

The Gingerbread Man: The fox tortures an impudent little boy until his only choice is between drowning or being eaten alive.

The Golden Goose: A greedy man enslaves the magical goose, then chops off the poor creature’s head and digs out his insides looking for gold.

The Man, The Boy, and The Donkey: A man and hi son are bullied and criticized until their donkey is killed in a terrible accident.

With all of these, I kind of fudged the details, softened things, or skipped some pages.

But this week, we read Henny Penny. You know that silly Henny Penny. The acorn falls on her head, she thinks the sky is falling, and incites panic in the poultry kingdom. She and her gang of feathered friends are rushing to tell the king that the sky is falling. But, the wily fox tricks them all into his cave.

The ending is kind of subtle. The book ends with an ominous: “No one ever saw Henny Penny and her friends again…and no one ever told the King that the sky was falling. But the Fox and his family NEVER forgot the fine feast that they had that day.”

I didn’t think either of my kids would “get” the real ending. But Babygirl wouldn’t let me close the book. She got very quiet, staring at that last page, at the fox family licking their lips.

She thought and thought about it, and then, with a flash of understanding, she looked up at me. She drew in her breath and I knew questions were coming.

“Mommy, mommy, um, did the fox and his family eat the birdies?” She says birdies like buwdies. Her eyes were big and she was very concerned.

I was caught off guard. I tried to explain: “Uh, yeah, well, foxes naturally hunt smaller animals, like chickens and ducks and things, and they they didn’t mean any harm, they just were really hungry, and couldn’t resist, see…”

She pointed excitedly at the picture. “But, but, but, mommy, did the foxes eat the birdies? Did they really eat them all up?”

“Uh, well, yeah, I think that’s what the story is telling us.”

Babyboy piped up. “Well, the foxes didn’t have to eat Henny Penny and all of them. They could have just gone to the grocery store.”

And here we all collapsed into the sillies. Foxes don’t go to grocery stores! That’s so silly! Giggles all around. I was so relieved.

I remembered this as I rode the subway home, scrolling through news coverage of the church shootings in Charleston. I thought of the Newtown school shooting; the Boston marathon bombings; the boy who was murdered last week as he rode his bike. It goes on and on. Violence. Needless, senseless, ugly violence. Innocents hurt, and no explanation, no lessons learned.

I know that the day will come when my kids will hear or see the news, and with a flash of understanding, eyes big and full of concern, they will turn to us and ask if it really happened. And they will ask why.

I’m hoping I come up with some answers…

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3 replies »

  1. I just read Chicken Little to the kids a few nights ago. I hadn’t read it in years and didn’t remember that the fox ate everyone. Our story was the Richard Scary version and at the end while the fox is relaxing on the banks of the river a crocodile is swimming nearby. My 4 year old said, “Uh oh! Fox is in trouble!” Bahaha!!

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  2. my daughter (3) was so worried about the sky falling that we never actually got to the end of the book! she randomly (weeks later) will ask me if the sky is going to fall down. I love that you answered her honestly!

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  3. I read in Cinderella ate my daughter (am sure that Peggy Orenstein has an actual source and could look it up if motivated!) that children can handle violent fairy tales better than we think. Not sure if it was there or somewhere else that suggested some of the violence in fairy tales was deliberate, to alert children to a violent world. My daughter asks lots of serious questions about death and handles the answers better than I think every time.

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