Hairy Tales

Have you ever read the original Cinderella? Snow White? Or the Snow Queen for that matter? Not as dreamy or romantic as you may think! Sleeping Beauty picking fleas medieval style out of the Prince’s hair like a monkey. The wicked step mother wishes to eat Snow White’s liver. Fairy tales are associated with love, happiness and dreams come true. Yet they must have the elements of nightmare to contrast and thereby maximise the effect of the happy ending. These classics of our youths were often inspired by something fearful or threatening. It is fair to say that behind all fairy stories we can see a dark, sinister undercurrent. One that we may not want our children to experience. Violence, abuse, abandonment,neglect- and that is just Little Red Riding Hood.

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Barefoot, defenceless little girl alone in a forest. There is a scene in ‘Breaking Bad’ far too similar in theme.

I had all the little Ladybird books and still do. My education and love of literature began right here.

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I can almost smell them…can’t you?!

Mine were circa 1984. The exact ones in the image. My sister was born in ’92. When my mother and I were reading the old fairy stories the violence and nightmare inducing horror suddenly came crashing down! Maybe the eighties suited the Grimms’ grimness more? We got her a few newer copies. The stories were different however.  Red Riding Hood’s Granny safely hides in a wardrobe until the coast is clear. No Nana for tea anymore. The Seven Little Kids are never swallowed by the Wolf at all. In fact the Wolf or the Ogre or whatever monster in each story seemed to have lost most of their evil ways. My sister, now 24, talked to me about this recently and recounted her shivering horror when she raided my childhood library. Her cosseted versions left her in no state to deal with my originals!

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Life lessons. Did they make us stronger people?

Alongside the introduction of channels such as the Cartoon Network and 24 hr animated entertainment, someone in an office somewhere must have decided the next reprint needed a revamp. Fairytale land got a sheriff in and he/she cleaned up Ladybird town big style.

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Get outta Dodge Wolf boy!

Original fairy tales…prepare yourself! Click here for a surprise…Where our childhood stories started.

When I told my friends that I was pregnant again, I received huge congratulations. One friend had just had a second baby and had the two under two thing going on also. She did give me a gentle warning. She elusively commented that ‘things are a bit hairy for the first few months, then it settles down’. A few months later, after baby was born, I joined a night out and a few glasses of wine made her more brutally honest in attitude and words. She was a little wild eyed as she declared,’ if you think things are busy now, wait until you go back to work. You won’t believe it. Myself and xxx are almost divorced!’.

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Her words were uttered in quite a desperate tone, underlined with frustrated tension. So she had a told me a fairytale before. To keep me happy.  A kindly white lie. One we tell ourselves all the time. So we get out of bed in the morning. So we face the day. We placate ourselves, saying the baby will be fine today. It was only wind yesterday that made her cry. Or when the weather improves and we can leave the house all will be well. Or my most uttered, ‘Sure it’s only teeth…’.Yes, the wolf had teeth too. All the better to eat you with…remember? These fairytales must be sued for false advertisement! Or should they? If I look further however, I can see they weren’t tricking me. The warning sign was in each and every one, hidden there behind a glitzy smokecreen of balls and princes, white horses and golden carriages. There was a nasty witch in Snow White. A whale swallowed Pinocchio. Who can forget the scene the youngest kid goat returns to, believing his six older brothers and sisters were attacked and eaten?  A scene of violence and tragedy. Genocide.

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What nightmares are made of.

The gingerbread man was devoured.

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He swallowed him whole.

This ingesting phenomemon wasn’t limited to bread boys and wooden children. A nasty lady was planning to EAT Hansel and Gretel. Children! Eaten! Children whose kindly father abandoned them and stepmother hated them. Cinderella lived in the dirt with mice. The little mermaid walked on knives, bleeding in agony. The little match girl froze to death.

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House of Horrors
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Don’t trust these baby blues. I am no dream come true.

No matter how much these stories were modified, these elements are what I remember. The story of how the tinman became a tinman in Baum’s original writing is just awful. It can be likened to the trauma suffered by Maximus Aurelius in Gladiator. Learn about the tinman’s pain here if you have time… and a lack of sensitivity!

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Sorrow and pain.

I believe ‘Fairy Tales’ should be renamed. I will use my friend’s expression to describe stressful, painful yet beautiful times, the elusive ‘hairy’. I will call them Hairy Tales! Yes, some of them are just plain hirsute.

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Let’s keep this between us…

Disney has brought many loved fairytales to screen. As a teacher, I am lucky enough to have a creative writing class with a Transition Year group. We modernise a fairy tale as one of our tasks. I have found that they are becoming increasingly more stymied when choosing which to modify and the reason is they don’t know them! Only for Disney, they wouldn’t be aware of many of the story lines at all. I know The Gruffalos and How to Train Your Dragons of this world are part of the reason. These are great tales too! I just wonder. Are parents avoiding these stories as they can remember shivering in the dark after lights out, hoping the evil Step Mother had not poisoned their night time snack?

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I have been a Disney fanatic from childhood. However I found myself becoming a little ‘odd’ about Frozen, maybe believing it wouldn’t give the magic of the Little Mermaid or The Sword and the Stone as I am an adult now (physically anyway!). I watched the smallest child sway to Let It Go and wondered at its power. I finally watched it. Boy, the issues are tough. Not as tough as the origins, but tough! Frozen…The origins. I am not sure if I would really like Gigi and Betsy getting too deeply into it.

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Watch me and let me go! Definitely don’t analyse what you have just witnessed.

Early Disney produced some truly scary films! I know at least five of these videos (eighties!)  had to be ‘put in the freezer’ in my home as it were after  I had sobbed my way through. Dumbo? Couldn’t deal with the tearful trunk entwining scene as he is separated from his Mammy. Pinocchio?  Terrifying. Drunken, evil fairground. Bambi? Once he grows up, I am done. The Fox and the Hound? They would never remain friends. Snow White?? The most terrifying evil character of all time! The image of that tranformed witch was a page in the book I couldn’t turn to without trembling. Gentler animation such as Robin Hood or The Aristocats would become my favourites and I still had evil butlers and snakes to deal with!

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Adorable animals that make wonderful plush toys. Nearly worth the fear. Nearly.

The nineties? Glorious soundtracks. More adorable animals that talk. Any dense, dark themes? Dead parents. The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Bambi, Cinderella…list goes on. Attempted murders. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Disney opens with the near drowning of a baby in a well. Horrific.

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Gentle, isolated Quasimodo.

My father always says that Victor Hugo story was a tragedy and never meant for children. He was right. Frozen? Tragedy. Loss. The destruction of young sisterly joy. Beautiful films. I love them all. I had no issues watching them (except my frozen status on Frozen! ). Do I want my daughters to watch them all? I really don’t know. Aladdin maybe! The Lady and the Tramp? Possibly. Alice in Wonderland? No, probably not. Remember The Walrus and the Carpenter or The tale of the curious Oysters? That did not end well.

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Real life modern Hairy Tales exist too. I was inspired to write this part because of a chance encounter. The other day myself and Betsy were in a cafe after an appointment with the doc. She was having a bottle and I, a coffee. We struck up conversations with the near by tables, as happens here in small towns. Another Mum and baby. A lady on her own. A gent on his.  The man was past middle aged and clearly a regular. He was obviously there to talk and the paper just disguised loneliness. A nice old man. When he got warmed though up her managed to relate quite a few Hairy Tales. It is part of our culture and I quite enjoyed the chat.  Like storytime in school!

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Once upon a time. ..

He told of a woman he had known with 18 children who lost her husband to cancer. She raised a lovely family.  The elder daughter married and went on to have six children of her own. Tragedy struck as she died suddenly when the youngest was three months old. The husband was a builder and a hard worker but unable to cope.  Care homes were put on the cards. The grandmother said she had raised 18 of her own. She would take the six and do it again. The children are now adults and seemingly a credit to her. A tragedy with a beautiful ending.  A real life Hairy Tale.

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Art imitating life.

He spoke of an argument with his sister. He had shared money with her from a win. He expected that when he moved nearer to her they would meet up for tea, go to matches and generally keep company. He had been gravely mistaken. Days were often spent alone. She barely spoke to him. He had come to terms with it, he said. He clearly hadn’t and was saddened by his solitude. I wonder if he will be there for her when she inevitably needs him again? Or like the little red hen, will he ignore the other person’s need once rejected, in retribution for being ignored,  like she did at the end?

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She did all the hard work and no one helped.

Finally he spoke of his depression. Electroconvulsive therapy. How lucky he was to be here. He lived each day as it came. A very religious man, he often makes pilgrimages to Lourdes. Maybe his tales were tall. Maybe they were not word by word truth. Either way they originated from life. Nothing ‘fairy’ about then at all. Definitely more ‘hairy’. A hint of fable with added morals too.

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Did you hear the one about…

Have you imagined yourself curling up with your child introducing them to your favourite book? Watching your beloved animated characters on screen? I have. The magic of The Elves and the Shoemaker. The fun of The Jungle Book. I then recall how terrifying a coiling python is. How scary the shoemaker’s plight would be if he didn’t finish his work. Do I want them to be afraid? My friend’ s seven year old boy was crying in his sleep one night. He told her it was because he didn’t want her to ever be locked up. Bewildered, she said that wouldn’t happen. He replied by asking, ‘What if you go mad like Dumbo’s Mammy?  Like when you shouted at the man in the other car when we went home from school?’. She was so shocked. Her cherished Disney memory became her son’s nightmare!

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Mickey needs to rate his movies.

My friend surely thinks having babies is no fairytale. I can argue that it fully is. Moments of true beauty spotted with occasional fear and horror. Happy endings all round. Real little princes and princesses.

I can’t protect them always.  For now I will see what happens. We will read. We will share stories. I might risk the girls having a false impression of Prince Charming. I might have to test whether morals can be learned.  We might just see why the Princess who danced all night and dip our toes tentatively in the mineridden grassy fields that are Hairy Tales!

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They all lived happily- albeit traumatised- ever after.

62 thoughts on “Hairy Tales

  1. What an interesting read. Definitely kids are more cosseted now in the way stories have been changed .. Was this a good thing ? Possibly not. Love all the imagery in your post by the way , thanks for sharing #fortheloveofblog

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    1. Thanks for your words! I wrote this awhile back, and in rereading cannot believe how much I had written! Obviously had a lot to say!! It is an interesting topic. My friend thinks cartoons had no effect on any of as children and gets quite annoyed about it. I feel fairytales are the same as people can be divided in opinion- iny school, either kids love them or don’t know much about them.#fortheloveofBLOG

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  2. Completely agree that children are much more protected these days from the ‘bad’ representations in fairy tales of yesteryear. I had a fab book of Aesops Fables (probably spelt that wrong) that wasn’t entirely innocent OR pretty but the lessons have stuck with me into adulthood. Love ‘hairy’ tales! #fortheloveofblog

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    1. It looks right! I lived Aesop as a kid. My mother had her old story book from the dark ages (ha ha Mum!)and it was grim. Love fairy tales but always see the horror underneath. 😨thanks for reading! #fortheloveofBLOG

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  3. I had loads of those ladybird books too – what a blast from the past seeing them!
    I love some of the older Disney films but they are a bit darker than the more modern ones (or at least less subtle about it). Pinnochio used to terrify me – in fact it probably still would if I watched it now..!
    #fortheloveofblog

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    1. Less subtle, I agree. The music too. The older films’ soundtracks don’t help. They make me feel sadder for some reason. Jiminy Cricket singing Wish Upon a Star is beautiful but an emotional killer!!thanks for reading! @fortheLoveofBlog

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  4. I certainly had those terrifying yellow covers around when I was a child!! And then when I was a bit older and looked at the new versions at the library, I was fairly certain that they were misprints because they didn’t leave you terrified to even walk near a shadow haha. Probably best not to terrify kids *quite* so much lol

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  5. The trunk entwining scene of Dumbo did (and does) make me cry. I agree with you though, we need the “horror” to understand the beauty in the resolution. If everything is too “gentle” we simply cannot prepare ourselves for real life. I don’t know about picking nits out of Prince Charming’s hair–but for sure that’s not all that far off. Marriage can be hard and nits are a reality. (We had lice in our house for the first time a few years back. So fun.)

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  6. As a child I loved the Disney versions of fairytales. But my grandmother read the original ones by H.C Andersen and the Grimm brothers for me and Even if they where much more brutal and scary I enjoyed them just as much. Even if their endings was not always good, like for the little mermaid.

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  7. Love your take on this Orla! I used to have those Ladybird books and some other versions… they were definitely darker then!!!! We have beautiful tgem now to protect the youth of today!

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  8. I remember the shock that I had as a child when I realised that fairytales weren’t as happy as they made out to be! Now I’m a lot more aware and, after studying ‘The Bloody chamber’ in English literature, I quite like the originals!
    Jas xx

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  9. The kids books that I write are definitely a ‘happy ever after’ sort, with a few minor scrapes for Misty and the crew to get out of throughout the story. Perhaps I’d sell a few more if I put in a deranged woodcutter – on the other hand, perhaps not 😳

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  10. I do remember some of the fairy tales I read as a child being quite “hairy”, as you put it! Come to think of it, one of my favourites – Mr.Pink Whistle – has also gotten a rewrite as the original was quite racist.

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  11. An exceptionally well thought out piece.

    The Prince slept with Sleeping Beauty while she was asleep, he child pulled the needle from her finger and woke her up, much to her surprise. The ugly sisters cut off their toes to try and fit into the glass slipper. The wolf ate Granny.

    Many of these tales started as parables, don’t go into the woods on your own, don’t trust strangers etc, because the world is a dangerous place and you need your wits about you. Sometimes it’s good to be scared, that’s what keeps you alive.

    I wonder sometimes if by shielding our (i.e. my) children from so much of the darkness in the world, this actually does them a disservice. Finding the balance is something I really wrestle with.

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  12. I love this post. It’s astonishing how original stories can change or be altered – I’m reading the Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and although I haven’t gotten very far, I’m surprised at how certain details were changed from the original to create the stories I grew up knowing. The Elves and the Shoemaker is one, actually – I did not know that the original has three parts, and the two parts that aren’t in modern retellings are much less child-friendly.

    Also, I admire your collection of Ladybirds – what a lovely series to have.

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  13. Very true words Orla. Fairy tales follow a fairly rigid plot line. Nice person falls foul of bad one, internal conflict and emotional impact and happy ending. Some appear darker to me now then when I first read them as a child. Disney movies were gentler in my opinion back then too. Although Watership Down was quite morbid in parts, as was Bambi. Reading them back now I clearly see quite sinister antagonists. Maybe they were compiled to reinforce good versus evil and provide a moral message. Modern variants seem weaker in that respect, less gritty maybe and too “nice” ?

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  14. Excellent post Orla and those Ladybird books bring back so many memories – my versions would have been 70s, and by the time we bought any for my kids the stories had been “diluted” and the pictures were definitely less frightening. The old witch in Hansel & Gretel scared the life out of me…..as did Cruella de Vil in one of my first Disney films watched at the cinema(1977ish), 101 Dalmations. As Gary says there were always morals in the stories with good versus evil and right from wrong – and these translated into dramatised versions of classic stories such as The Wizard of Oz and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with some very scary villains for children (thinking Child catcher). Going back to the original Grimm’s fairytales, my son studied these for A level and was surprised at just how dark the original stories are!

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  15. Love this!
    I studied fairytales, Grimm and Aesop for a project during my Masters Degree and I must confess I hadn’t read many of them before. I loved them though, maybe because I’m also an 80’s baby. I like the grimness (pun intended) and grit to them! I’m also a massive fan of Disney, more so the early ones. As a child I’d watch Sleeping Beauty and Bambi repeatedly. On video…. remember those days! I think I’ve seen Frozen 8 times this week alone (I live with a 2 year old and she loves to sing along!). Although I’m a sucker for a musical, this really doesn’t do it for me. Maybe because I’m an adult now and have fond memories of Snow White and Cinderella. I also read Peter Pan (the original) as an adult. Wow my views of that changed. Brilliant Novel and film though.

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  16. I watched all of the ‘hairy tale” movies growing up, and I remember my parents reading me many books of nursery rhymes as well. Many of them just as hairy as the movies – sometimes more-so. For instance: Three blind mice, three blind mice,

    See how they run, see how they run,

    They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

    Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,

    Did you ever see such a thing in your life,

    As three blind mice?

    or

    Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop

    When the wind blows, the cradle will rock

    When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall

    And down will come baby, cradle and all.

    When I was little, I didn’t really process the ill-meaning behind the rhymes. I think I was the same with the “hairy tales”. Maybe it’s a child’s way of dealing with tough topics. I don’t know. Very interesting post, Orla. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  17. Really amazing post.

    It makes me wonder, do hairy tales help increase a chilld’s resilience? I mean it is quite a safe way for them to learn that the world isn’t always safe and sweet…

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  18. As a child I was read to by my sisters and my mum, all sorts of Fairy tales and I loved them. I was never scared or worried that I was going to be put in a big old pot by some old scary warty black witch. I think we as children mostly just love the closeness it brings to our family members. I then read these myself as I grew up. When I had my children I read these same fables to them.

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  19. Such a thought-provoking read Orla! I don’t remember ever thinking too deeply about the Fairy tales when I was growing up, yet I remember being disturbed by The Little Match Girl… I must go back and give HCA and Grimm a re-read.

    Coincidentally by phone auto-corrected your name to Olaf which makes me think of the poor, unwitting snowman who wants to comfort his friend by the fire…

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  20. Love this post! I wasn’t exposed to many fairy tales when I was younger as stories of norse mythology was more appealing to me, but recently I have been listening to this podcast ( https://www.parcast.com/tales/ ) where they retell the tales in their raw, true form and boy is it traumatizing. I’m both happy and worried about the tales being so watered down and altered, but I’m also glad that the children can a bit sheltered from the terrible things that happen in these stories. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. Either way, this really got me thinking, I love it.

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    1. Thank you for the link that is great! It is definitely all worth thinking about it. I mean, the parents die young in more fairy takes than represented on real life- it doesn even have shock factor!!!

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  21. This such is such a well thought out post Orla. Although I am glad to know the children do not have to be traumatised at their story telling time, I don’t understand if these stories were never meant for kids, why adopt them as children stories at all?

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    1. I know! I remember watching the films (older ones) about Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimms, and they just took old stories to retell for kids as a pleasurable thing in a tough world. So may be in context it makes sense- tough times may have made tough tales easier to handle. Thanks for your visit!

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  22. I’m thankful that I didn’t read the full length, original fairy tales until I was about 14- the Little Mermaid scarred me for life even at that age (STOP TALKING ABOUT BLOODY FOAM, IT’S GRODY). I think that the original Grimms would make for a fantastic adult book club!!

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  23. Snow White is the reason I didn’t eat red apples until only a couple of years ago I am almost 30! That scene where Dumbos mammy rocks him with her trunk while she’s caged up and chained putting her trunk through the door still breaks my heart today! We aren’t even 5 minutes into Bambi when that shotgun fires and the blood spots taint that perfect white snow and she’s dead and Bambi is an orphan. I agree Frozen ain’t all that. Disney is a part of so many of our childhoods but has changed the original storylines so much from the Grimm stories – but in an ever increasing PC wrap your kids in cotton wool world I hope it doesn’t get even worse!!

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    1. I am glad someone else gets It! My heart sinks even reading the Dumbo scene- so upsetting. Bambi is too sad also. Disney always get around PC I think- we watched Tangled again today and the Mother Knows Best Song is so rich in emotional abuse that even my two years old knows something is terribky amiss! Thanks for your comments!

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      1. I haven’t watched Tangled but heard good things – lots of people prefer it to Frozen – controversial!

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  24. I love this article. Lovely photos as well. I used to read fairy tales when my son was still small and I was thinking why those fairy tales were sometimes brutal that my son was scared. Fairy Tales is indeed a hairy tale. Enjoy your weekend!

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  25. I love this… it was only after I had my son and reading fairytales to him I realised how grim some of them are…and nursery rhymes as some one mentione earlier “rock a bye baby” aesops fables were my favorite to read. Though I can’t remember what I read as a kid…

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