Classic children’s spec-fic has been on my to-read list for a long, long time, and finally, once I finish up The Old Curiosity Shop, I’ll be able to lose myself in childhood fantasy.
It’s intimidating choosing where to start, though, because there are so many classic books that, for whatever reasons, I had never read as a kid. My first thought was to limit myself to more recent classics of the last century, such as Peter Pan, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Matilda. Stories everyone knows and loves in one form or another.
But then again, everyone knows the stories of Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and The Tortoise and the Hare too. These fairy tales and fables are just as embedded in and important to our literary culture as are the standard-issue modern classics, so I can’t pass these up. I thus added some of the more “classic” classics to my to-read list—the fairy tales and fables of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Aesop.
Thinking of fables then led me to One Thousand and One Nights, the well-known frame story of Middle Eastern folk tales. Although the work isn’t a piece of children’s literature by any means (and really, many traditional fairy tales aren’t child-friendly), it is another piece of speculative fiction that has influenced and continues to influence other fables, fairy tales, and children’s stories. I added One Thousand and One Nights to my list as well.
The deep cultural roots of the Middle Eastern classic and its ties to Mesopotamian, Indian, Arabic, Egyptian, and Persian folklore shifted my search for “classic” children’s classics to a search for mythology. I mean the real classics here: Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Aztec, Chinese, Japanese, Norse, Celtic…the list goes on.
Any given culture or religion in the world has a rich and extensive mythology that has shaped storytelling in some way. At what point does my innocent search for fairy tales, fables, and myths to read in preparation for children’s literature become a study in culture, religion, and philosophy?
I just want to read some of the roots of fantasy. Where do dragons come from? What does it mean to be a hero? What is magic? How did fantasy all start?
Typical me—in an effort to narrow down which classic children’s books I will read, I’ve split open my possibilities. Now instead of choosing between Winnie the Pooh and The Velveteen Rabbit, I’m choosing from among the entire world’s cultures. I have a lot of research ahead of me, and I welcome any suggestions for particular collections of myths. Please let me know if you have any recommendations!
Looks like I’m taking an extended detour in myth before I can get lost in children’s fantasy.