Recently I read that a good number of children are arriving at kindergarten having never heard of stories such as The Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, and The Three Billy Goats Gruff – nursery tales that have delighted generations of children. I was surprised and saddened to read this, as nursery tales play an important role in a child’s development, particularly in terms of pattern awareness and language acquisition. So, in hopes of encouraging more parents to read nursery tales to their children on a consistent basis, this post is all about the benefits of reading nursery tales, as well as criteria to use in selecting them. It also includes reviews of eight different illustrated nursery tale collections that we wholeheartedly recommend for parents and their young listeners (and one collection that we have reservations about).
As mentioned above, nursery tales do make significant contributions to a child's cognitive development. The repetition of incidents and rhymes draws children into the story, encouraging them to anticipate what will happen next and begin to chime in on the rhymes. Since the patterns in these tales are clearly recognizable, children can easily become active participants in the reading process.
The rhymes in nursery tales also strengthen a child’s memory and help them to acquire new vocabulary. Hearing the same words or phrases repeated over and over helps to ingrain them in a child’s mind. And after hearing them spoken aloud several times, children then have multiple opportunities to try saying them aloud themselves.
Lastly, very young children crave consistency in all aspects of their life, and repetition and rhymes meet this need by offering a sense of security. In rhyming nursery tales, children quickly learn what what to anticipate from the text and their expectations are largely met, with subtle changes introduced through plot developments or simple word substitutions. Nursery rhymes thus introduce new ideas and words by couching them in more familiar language and patterns, a strategy that allows children to more easily assimilate them into their understanding.
First of all, make your life easier by choosing a collection of nursery tales all of which are suitable for use with your three to five year old child. Just because a book has the words "Nursery Tales" in the title does not mean that all tales in the book are appropriate for use with young children. Publishers may include stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, and Rumpelstiltskin which require an emotional response beyond their years. Here is a list of the most popular nursery tales and some less familiar ones that are perfect to use with this age.
Secondly, look for satisfactory endings! This is especially a concern with the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. You may have a sensitive child who will be devastated to hear that the wolf gobbled up the young lass even if she is disgorged whole later. Or you may be uncomfortable with that yourself. In either case, choose a version of the story that matches your sensibilities. Similarly with The Three Little Pigs. I prefer the version in which the wolf eats both the first and second little pigs and then is eaten in turn by the third little pig. After all, it is in the nature of wolves to eat little pigs, and the wolf who has done so deserves his come-uppance. But you may prefer to have the pigs and wolf simply run away. So preread each story to make sure you are satisfied with its ending.
Lastly, I have a strong preference for nursery tales with the traditional language and arresting turns of phrase, as in these lines at the end of The Gingerbread Boy:
Presently the gingerbread boy said: "Oh, dear! I'm quarter gone!" And then: "Oh, I'm half gone!" And soon: "I'm three-quarters gone!" And at last: "I'm all gone!" and never spoke again.
He hadn't got far when "Hrumph," Foxy-woxy snapped off Turkey-lurkey's head and threw his body over his left shoulder. Then Goosey-poosey went in, and "Hrumph," off went her head and Goosey-poosey was thrown beside Turkey-lurkey....
Some versions omit them.
The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Story Book (1985) invites children into the world of nursery tales with its appealing cover of bears, wolves, pigs, and children circling round. Inside await ten well-chosen tales, all suitable for children as young as three. The pages are attractively formatted with text of pleasing proportions and color illustrations throughout. The illustrations vary in size, with the full page illustrations capturing the dramatic action and the smaller illustrations setting the scene (as in the sample page spread below). The retellings of the stories are well done, the one exception being the story of The Three Little Pigs which is shortened by omitting the events in the turnip field, the apple orchard, and the fair. The children for whom this book is an introduction to nursery tales will relish those scenes when they encounter them later on in other editions. By the way, this title can be previewed in its entirety at Internet Archive.
Charlotte Voake's The Three Little Pigs and Other Favorite Nursery Stories (1991) is an exuberant presentation of ten nursery tales with both the text and the illustrations fairly dancing across the page. Large print and wide spaces between lines make this book especially suitable for emerging readers. The careful insertion of pictures at just the right point in the text support the reader and non-reader alike in following the story (see page spread below). Voake sticks to the traditional language for the most part. She includes the vivid endings for The Gingerbread Boy and Henny Penny, but uses different comparisons (hot/salty for porridge and high/lumpy for bed) than are customary in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Of the ten stories in the book, nine are on our list of must-read nursery tales. The other one (Mr. Vinegar) also comes highly recommended for five year olds. All in all, a fine book that will find years of service in a family setting.
Stunning illustrations adorn Sophie Windham's The Orchard Book of Nursery Stories (1991). Each story opens with a carefully crafted illustration above the title, many with a decorative border. Many details await discovery by the observant eye, not only in the eight full page color illustrations, but also in the smaller pictures pleasingly placed throughout. Large bold text, well-spaced, will delight the emerging reader in your family. The traditional language is followed in all cases. Of the fifteen stories in the book, ten can be used with children as young as three. The others — The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Musicians of Bremen, Country Mouse and Town Mouse, The Hedgehog and the Hare, and The Ugly Duckling — will be more appreciated by those five and up.
Anne Rockwell's The Three Bears & 15 Other Stories (1975) is the edition of nursery tales nearest and dearest to us because of the role it played in our family life. I first heard about it from Dorothy Butler's Babies Need Books decades ago when my oldest son was three. She characterizes it as "a collection which can be acquired with confidence for three-year-olds. Several stories will be usable from two onwards if their babyhood has been bookish, and several might be left until four, but Anne Rockwell's The Three Bears and 15 Other Stories will be in daily use for years. This book is actually the equivalent of sixteen picture books. No page is without an expressive colour picture, and every single story is usable. There is something especially satisfying about a book which can be taken along on any expedition — a picnic, a trip to the doctor, a long car or train journey — with a guarantee of stories for all moods and moments. The Three Bears and 15 Other Stories is a treasure trove; sturdy, not too big, thoroughly companionable." With a billing like that, how could I resist? I was pleasantly surprised that it lived up to its expectations, not only with my oldest son but also with his two younger siblings a decade later! There is not much to add to Butler's thorough review, but I do want to call your attention to the ingenious pictorial table of contents (shown above) that might well be used to introduce children to the idea of a table of contents. By the way, this edition can be previewed in its entirety at Internet Archive.
Anne Rockwell's The Old Woman and Her Pig and 10 Other Stories makes a great addition to your collection of nursery tales if you already have The Three Bears & 15 Other Stories. It features five more nursery tales, two of which are not to be missed — Lambikin and The Travels of a Fox. Also included are four fables suitable for this age and two folk tales better saved for ages six and up — The Lad Who Went to the North Wind and The Shepherd Boy. As in the earlier book, the illustrations in this book are striking both in number and in artistry! They tend toward the whimsical with figures that have definite personalities that are sure to engage your youngsters. By the way, this edition can be previewed in its entirety at Internet Archive.
Richard Scarry's Best Nursery Tales Ever was originally published in 1975 as Animal Nursery Tales (with a yellow cover). A large format book, it includes ten stories and one nursery rhyme — a fine choice of stories, all well told. As in other Richard Scarry books, all characters are animals, even those that are traditionally people in other collections. Here cats play the parts of Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood, her mother, and grandmother, while a pair of pigs are featured as the little old man and little old man in The Gingerbread Man. Fittingly, the role of the teeny-tiny woman is assumed by a mouse! Also, as in other Richard Scarry books, the pages are "busy" with lots of illustrations and blocks of text. If your family enjoys other Richard Scarry books, this volume will be a fine one to add to your collection!
Having owned a copy of The Tall Book of Christmas when I was young, I know the hold that a volume in the Tall Book series can exert on a child. I loved that book, partly for its unusual shape, but partly for the way that the illustrations had to be designed to the space, serving up a different perspective. Feodor Rojankovsky in his The Tall Book of Nursery Tales (1944) uses the space at his disposal in a masterful way. You can see that above in the cover of the book where the tall trees are towering over the children, as well as in the sample page below where you observe Goldilocks tasting the porridge from a different vantage point. Of the 24 stories in this book, 15 are nursery tales and 7 are fables, all well suited to this age. Two stories — The Ugly Duckling and The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean could be profitably put off for a couple of years. The text follows the traditional lines.But the illustrations are extraordinary, evoking a magical place in an old world of long ago. Rojankovsky creates animals like no one else, his interest in drawing stemming from a childhood visit to a zoo and the gift of a set of crayons. A fine book for children to examine at their leisure!
Great Children's Stories illustrated by Frederick Richardson is a compilation of two books originally published decades ago: Old Old Tales Retold (1923) and Frederick Richardson's Book for Children (1938). Both of these titles were published in landscape format, so the illustrations had to be adapted to fit the Classic Volland Edition of Great Children's Stories pictured above. The 17 stories in this book comprise a stellar collection of nursery tales, all attractively illustrated in great detail. You will note two different styles of illustrations in this volume depending upon which of the original titles the stories were sourced from. The pages are attractively formatted and could be used for independent reading later on. The text is sound. Do note though that in this version of The Three Little Pigs, the first and second pig run away, as does the wolf at the end. To get more of the flavor of Richardson's nursery tales, you can read the first couple of stories in both Old Old Tales Retold and Frederick Richardson's Book for Children at Gateway to the Classics. Or you can preview the volume in its entirety at Internet Archive.
I was initially excited to discover that Tomie de Paola had illustrated an edition of nursery tales, Tomie de Paola's Favorite Nursery Tales. But when I examined the 30 entries listed in the Table of Contents, I was dismayed to find that only 11 qualified as nursery tales for ages 3 to 5. Seven stories were ones best used several years later. (The collection also contains four poems and eight fables which would be fine to use with younger children.) I also was disappointed by the excessive moralizing in The Three Bears and the nontraditional ending of The Three Little Pigs in which the pigs and wolf simply run away. If you already have this title, these are the ninenursery tales I recommend you use with your little ones: Johnny Cake, The Little Red Hen, The Three Billy-Goats Gruff, Johnny and the Three Goats, The Straw Ox, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Chicken Licken, The Cat and the Mouse, and The House on the Hill. If you don't have this title yet, I recommend you choose instead one of the editions reviewed above. By the way, this edition can be previewed in its entirety at Internet Archive.
Since many of these collections share the same classic stories, parents will want to look to the illustrations and aesthetic of each book in order to determine what might be the best fit for their family. That being said, we do always recommend exposing children to nursery tales from different sources. Reading different versions of the classic stories gives children the opportunity to compare illustrators, text variations, language choices, and so on. Besides, so many of these books are just too good to miss!
While most of these titles were published before 1995 and many are no longer in print, the stories and illustrations they contain are evergreen. We hope that readers will find at least one new title from the list of nursery tale collections given above that excites them!
Do you have a favorite collection of nursery tales that we omitted? Please share in the comments below!
The criteria we use in selecting books for children varies depending on the age of the child. However, since we've recently been focusing on criteria for choosing books for children in the early years, we wanted to share a passage on this topic that we found to be enlightening. The passage comes from the second chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's "For the Story Teller" (1913) in which she describes a second criterion for selecting stories to tell to children of kindergarten age. (You can find our earlier post on her first criterion here.)
Although Carolyn Sherwin Bailey refers specifically to "stories" here, keep in mind that everything she says about telling stories also applies to picture books.
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"The senses are the only avenues to the brain by means of which the outside world makes its way into a little child's inner consciousness. A baby's brain is an almost unexplored, untracked place, empty save for a few instinct paths—certain motor tracts tenanted by inherited memories which lead him to cry, to nurse, and to perform some other reflex movements.
This condition of the mind does not last long, however. The baby opens his eyes and sees the sunlight dancing in a yellow patch of gold upon the wall above his bed. Instantly, like a telegraphic message, there is delivered at the baby's brain an idea, unnamed at first but ineffaceable—color. When he sees a red ball suspended by a string in front of his eager eyes, a second message is delivered at his mind-house, differentiating and localizing the first impression—color versus color. The formal names, red and yellow, do not enter into the process at all and are indeed quite unnecessary. The baby differentiates red and yellow months before he knows the color names.
The baby hears his mother's voice and he receives by means of another telegraphic message the percept, sound. He touches a piece of ice, or his warm bottle, and learns by means of this direct contact, cold and warm. His nostrils admit the pleasurable odors of his scented bath, the dainty powder used for making his body comfortable or the bunch of roses that stands on his mother's table, and he receives a new set of brain stimuli as he differentiates odors.
These are all such simple mental operations that we have rather taken them for granted, forgetting that Nature's method of forcing, letting in impressions to the child's mind, is the only way for us to give him knowledge. The surest way of educating a child is through an appeal to his senses. . . . We have made little effort to appeal to a child's mind through the story that has sense images of sight, touch, sound, or taste to strengthen the mind impression which it makes.
If we analyze the story that has interested us most in a current magazine, we shall discover that, somehow, it made a direct appeal to our senses. It may have had the setting of some old garden, the description of which made us, in imagination, smell the clove pinks, roses, French lilacs and mignonette that grew in some garden of our childhood. Perhaps it was a sound story, giving us such speaking word pictures of bird songs, violin tones or even the human notes of voices that we almost heard the story instead of seeing it. On the other hand, the sense appeal of the story may have been that of color, of food— any sense stimulus that routed from their brain corners our old sense impressions and set them to working again. And it is almost impossible to gauge the effect upon cerebration of these stored-up sensory images.
That whiff of odor from a city flower cart brings suddenly to my mind an incident that I had not been cognizant of for years—the memory of a certain long-ago day when I purloined my Grandmother's scissors and cut off two of my curls to make a wig for a hairless rag doll. What is the connection between this day of badness of my childhood and a dingy city flower wagon? Ah, I have it! There was a pot of Martha Washington geraniums in the room where I sat when I cut my hair. My small, serge sleeve brushed the leaves as I held the curls triumphantly to the light and the pungent odor found a permanent place in my mind, side by side with the other memory, ineffaceable, always ready to produce a recall.
Dr. Van Dyke once said that if he were able to paint a picture of Memory, he would picture her asleep in a bed of mint. He illustrated the value of sensory stimuli in fiction. One gauge of a perfectly constructed piece of fiction is its sense content. Does it include such writing as will make the reader see, taste, smell, and hear? So, in stories for children we must apply the same test.
A child's story, to interest, should have a strong sense appeal.
Many of the old, handed-down jingles and folk tales are full of eating and drinking, smelling delectable odors, hearing the sounds of child life and seeing over again child scenes. Therein lies their world appeal and the reason for their ancient and obvious popularity.
"The Queen of Hearts,
She made some tarts."
"Little Tommy Tucker
Sings for his supper;
What shall he eat?
White bread and butter."
"Ding, dong bell, Pussy's in the well."
"Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town."
"Rock-a-by baby, your cradle is green."
"The rose is red,
The violet blue,
Sugar is sweet
And so are you."
One might go on indefinitely quoting lines of Mother Goose that tickle a child's fancy and are undying in their appeal for the sole reason that they are sensual in the broader understanding of the term. They include simple, direct references to the mental concepts that the child has gained through his senses. Much of what the normal, natural child has accomplished, mentally, up to the age of three or four years, has been to note bright colors, to handle everything he has come in contact with,—not, as so many persons suppose, for purposes of mischievous destruction, but rather to touch each object and make its feeling an integral part of his ego,—to eat and drink and to use his nostrils as a dog does. What more natural than that his beginnings in English should have for their basis a sense content that will help the child to name, put into words his previously acquired but unnamed sense impressions?
Miss Emilie Poulsson's finger plays for little children have for their basic appeal the stimulating of a child's ability to recall previously acquired sense impressions. In addition, the finger movements with which the child illustrates these rhymes give the added association of the sense of touch to strengthen and vivify the child's interest in and memory of the rhyme stories. To illustrate:
"Here's a ball for baby,
Big and soft and round.
Here's the baby's hammer,
Oh, how he can pound.
Here's the baby's music,
Clapping, clapping so.
Here are baby's soldiers
Standing in a row—"
As the child grows beyond the age when Mother Goose and Finger Plays appeal to him, he still finds his greatest interest in those stories which stimulate his acquired sensory images. The mental operation of apperception described in the last chapter is so inclusive a process, covering, as it must of necessity, memory and perception, that it explains the appeal of the sense story to the mind of a child.
It is to be questioned whether or not the story of The Little Red Hen would have been awarded such immortality if its heroine had been a plain hen and not red. Having been dyed with the crimson pigment of the imagination, however, by some old-world story teller, she has taken her cheerful, cackling way through the streets of childhood, an undying, classic fowl of fiction because she is colored.
So it is with Elizabeth Harrison's wonderful allegory of The Little Gray Grandmother. She might have been described in the story as a spirit, a fairy, a mythical character who influenced for good the lives of Wilhelm, Beata and the others. But instead of describing her invisibility—Miss Harrison paints it, colors her story heroine with the shades of intangible things. She is a little gray grandmother and her clothes are sea fog and her veil is of smoke. She is an animated part of the seashore home and is made of gray mist. What could be more artistic than the sense appeal of this story?
Why do children—all children—listen, gaping and ecstatic, to the account of the many and hazardous adventures of the Gingerbread Boy? Why do they beg to have the story told over again, even after they have heard it so many times that they know it by heart. Its universal popularity is not due to its folklore quality. Neither is it due to its plot and treatment, although these undoubtedly strengthen it. Its big appeal, however, is to the child's sense of taste. The story arouses tasting images in the child's mind, that are pleasurable and strong.
. . . "A chocolate jacket and cinnamon seeds for buttons! His eyes were made of fine, fat currants; his mouth was made of rose-colored sugar and he had a gay little cap of orange-sugar candy"—Sara Cone Bryant says in describing her Gingerbread Man. So, from this delectable, luscious paragraph about his make-up, to the climax of the story when the Gingerbread Man is devoured by the fox, the child hearers eat in imagination all the way.
Why the Chimes Rang makes a different and more ethical sense appeal to the child's mind. The story stimulates in the listeners a deep interest in the old chime of bells that has hung silent for so long a time in the tower. One longs to hear them and waits anxiously for the miracle that will start their pealing. At the story climax, when an unselfish offering laid upon the altar works the wonder, it is possible to listen, in imagination, to the bells' sweet music.
But why make this sense appeal to the child mind through the medium of a story, the story teller asks? There are two very real and definite uses to which the sense story may be put.
Such sense stories as "The Little Red Hen," "The Gingerbread Boy" and many others of similar character may be told not only to give pleasure to the child of kindergarten age who finds delight in their sensual content, but they have a very real value in awakening the mental life of a special needs child. We are discovering that it is possible to rouse to action a child's sleeping brain by means of intensive sense training. We are teaching him to smell, taste, see color, discriminate forms and textiles, to open the telegraphic circuit of his senses. We are putting the world of realities into the arms of the child with special needs to touch, feel, taste, smell, see. So we educate him, but we must carry out the same system of sense training in his stories, selecting for his hearing those stories that make verbal and recall his previously acquired sense impressions.
There is one other use to which we may put the sense story. It is a means of strengthening any child's imagination. The same mental operation by means of which a baby associates the idea cold with a block of ice, helps the child to feel the cold of Andersen's Little Match Girl. In the first instance the association of cold and ice means self-preservation for the baby. He wishes to avoid an unpleasant sensation, so he does not touch the ice, but his former experience of touching it has left an ineffaceable image in his mind. In the second instance, the image cold is recalled in the mind of the child by the story and the result is a very different mental process. The child is able through the sensory stimulus of the story to feel with the little match girl, to put himself in her place, to understand her condition, because it is brought to him in a familiar term—cold.
The story teller who makes the wisest use of the sense story sees to it that the color, sound, taste or odor described in the story is used as a means to an end. One does not wish to stimulate sense images in a child's mind for the simple operation of "making his thinking machine work" in old paths. What we must do is to utilize his sense impressions to strengthen new brain paths. Fortunately nearly all of the stories for children that have a sensory content utilize this mode of writing to strengthen the climax of the story. It only remains for the story teller to select her color, sound, taste, odor, or touch story to meet the needs of her children."
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This concludes this excerpt from the second chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's For the Story Teller.
With so many stunning picture books in our day and age, it is easy to see how the illustrations are a feast for the eyes and appeal to all ages. But if, like me, you hadn't considered before how sense impressions can be evoked by the text of the story, that may be something you want to keep an eye out for in the reading you do with your children. While sense appeal is only one of a number of criteria to use when selecting books for children, it does seem to play an important role in securing children's interest, and may be a critical factor when children decide which are their favorites, that they want to hear over and over again.
To give you more practice in thinking about elements in a story that appeal to the senses, here are nine stories (all fine choices to read to five year-olds) that Carolyn Sherwin Bailey lists at the end of the chapter as having exceptional sense appeal:
Have you encountered any modern day picture books whose text has exceptional sensory appeal? Please share their titles in the comments below!