Recently, we read a story called The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch; the well-loved author of Love You Forever and many other wonderful stories. In the story, Princess Elizabeth is described as a beautiful young princess who lives in a lovely castle, has beautiful hair, and expensive clothes. She is betrothed to her perfect match, Prince Ronald. Until one day when a dragon comes along and smashes her castle, burns up all her fancy clothes with his fiery breath, and captures Prince Ronald. Princess Elizabeth decided to put on the only thing that survived the fire (a paper bag) and sets off to save her prince.
When Elizabeth finally meets the dragon, she uses several very sneaky tactics to trick the dragon into exhaustion. Once the dragon is out cold, she rushes in to save Prince Ronald, but he scoffs at her appearance and choice of clothing. He tells her to go away and not to come back until she looks like a “real” princess. Elizabeth smiles and says, “Ronald, your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum,” and Princess Elizabeth decides not to marry him after all.
After the story, we discussed why Princess Elizabeth decided not to marry Prince Ronald. Many of the students concluded that Ronald was not very nice to her and that she should be allowed to wear/look however she wants. Others decided that sometimes, the princess gets dirty and saves the prince. One child even stated that it doesn’t matter what clothes a person wears, what matters is that they are a nice person. We decided as a class that it’s fun to imagine and tell lots of different stories. Boys can pretend to be princesses and fairies. Girls can pretend to be princes and dragons or maybe just a princess who likes to get dirty every once in a while. When we play, we can be anything our minds can dream up and the true moral of the story is that life isn’t much different. Regardless of our age or gender, we can be anything we wish to be if we just spend a little bit of time imagining.
I was a bit thrown by a comment made during a small group discussion today. I’ll try to replicate the conversation. Of course the names have been changed to protect the growing identities of our young social scientists. Let’s call them Marcella and Hildegarde. The two children were discussing the action in a plot they were creating.
Hildegard: The boys can go out and do hard work and build. And the girls can have tea parties.
Mrs. Forst: Girls can build and boys can go to tea parties.
(The two children laugh at my comment.)
Marcella: (scoffs) Princesses can’t build. They NEVER get dirty.
Mrs. Forst: What if they want to go milk the cows.
Marcella: (aghast) They don’t do that! That’s what villagers do!
Mrs. Forst: What if she puts on work clothes so she can go do some work?
Marcella: She can’t dress like a villager. That would be hideous. They [princesses] never wear “ragedy” clothes.
The conversation that followed included Marcella’s definition for “ragedy” (torn and ripped up and dirty) and an emphatic group agreement that princesses would never do actual work. I countered with a few questions. If a princess has to stay clean and fancy all of the time, does she ever get to have any fun? At some point Marcella and Hildegarde identified themselves as villagers. I asked them if they ever wore “ragedy” clothes. Of course, the answer was a resounding “No!” Being five years old, they didn’t notice the gap in their logic.
Next, we had a political discussion:
Hildegarde: It doesn’t really matter, because the villagers are in charge of the whole kingdom.
Mrs. Forst: Why is there a princess, then?
Hildegarde: (exasperated) All castles have princesses.
In our class, we are encouraging all of the children to explore many different roles as they play. We want them to know that all options are open for princesses, princes and villagers. Women build things. Men design dresses. Girls design computer software and enforce laws. Boys sing and create dazzling culinary feasts. Humans create. Princesses are not made of glass. They can get dirty. They can wear work clothes (without any rips and holes) and they should never be forced to stay in the tower, segregated from the rest of the world.
Last month Mrs. Hanczar, the music teacher, taught the children a song and dance about Thorn Rosa. This version of Sleeping Beauty has been a topic for play since. The class was already enamored with fairies and royalty, so this new tale spun them off into happily-ever-after. Taking their lead, I’ve been collecting traditional and re-written fairy tales for us to read and compare. We began our study by listing all of the people, places, things we could think of that can be found in fairy tales.
Where We Find Them
In Magical Lands
Our first in-depth study was of “The Princess and the Pea“. Numerous readings showed us that sometimes stories can be told in different ways. For instance, in some versions there were 20 mattresses stacked on the Princess’ bed and in others there were 100. Our retelling included only 6 since that was the space limit for our paper creations.
The bed frames were crafted out of sticks we collected on the playground. As a class, the children decided how we could create a frame. Each child then took those ideas and adapted them to fit their designs. Although I, of course, imagined that the beds would look like a traditional side view of a bed, they had other plans. Many of the designs feature a large rectangle surrounding the paper. Think of this as a view from the top of the bed. Others boast complicated designs with ladders and stairs that I can only assume are inspired by bunk beds or the need to climb up all of those mattresses.
During our discussion of characters, the class decided that there should be four actors in our story: The Queen, The King, The Prince, and The Princess. We drew these with permanent marker on watercolor paper and then painted in the color details. We taped a piece of embroidery floss on the back of each and then taped it to the back of the picture so we wouldn’t lose our puppets.
Retelling stories helps us understand more about how stories are crafted. As we remember the tale and share it with others, we explore setting, characters, plot, and voice. The more we know about how stories are constructed, the easier it is to make up and write our own. This activity also helps us with comprehension as we grow older and read stories independently. We become used to the conventions of a story and can identify when we’ve misread a word that sets the tale in a spin. Retelling also gives us confidence as owners of knowledge. Each child is assured that they are the experts with this tale and can share it with others.