Selecting Nursery Tales

by Lisa Ripperton
April 25, 2019

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).

The benefits of reading nursery tales

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.

​What to look for in collection of nursery tales

​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.

  • The Thre​e Bears or Goldilocks and the Three Bears
  • ​The Three Little Pigs
  • ​The Three Billy Goats Gruff
  • ​The Little Red Hen
  • Henny Penny or Chicken Licken or Chicken Little
  • ​The Gingerbread Boy
  • ​Little Red Riding Hood
  • ​The Old Woman and Her Pig
  • ​Lambikin
  • ​The Turnip
  • The Cock, the Mouse, and the Little Red Hen
  • ​Lazy Jack
  • Teeny-Tiny or The Little Wee Woman
  • ​The Wolf and the Kids
  • ​The Three Sillies
  • ​The Elves and the Shoemaker
  • ​The Bremen Town Musicians
  • ​The Little Porridge Pot
  • ​The House on the Hill
  • ​The Three Wishes

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.

or these at the conclusion of Henny Penny. 

​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
by Helen Oxenbury

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.

​The ​Three Little Pigs and Other Favorite Nursery Stories
by ​Charlotte Voake

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.

​The ​Orchard Book of Nursery Stories
by ​Sophie Windham

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.

​The ​Three Bears & 15 Other Stories
by ​Anne Rockwell

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.

​The ​Old Woman and Her Pig and 10 Other Stories
by ​Anne Rockwell

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.

​​Best Nursery Tales Ever
by ​Richard Scarry

​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!

​The ​Tall Book of Nursery Tales
by Feodor Rojankovsky

​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
by ​Frederick Richardson

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.

​​Favorite Nursery Tales
by ​Tomie de Paola

​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 nine​nursery 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.

Final thoughts

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! 

Share your experience

Do you have a favorite collection of nursery tales that we omitted? Please share in the comments below!

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Introducing Your Children to Shakespeare (Part II)

by Rebecca Ripperton
April 22, 2019

This post is the second of a two part series on introducing young readers to Shakespeare. You can read our first post here. In it we addressed which plays to begin with and the benefits of knowing the story before reading the play. We also covered the importance of seeing live performances, and the value of returning to the same plays again and again.

Taking a multi-sensory approach

For many of us — especially middle and high school-aged readers — sometimes it’s best to take a multi-sensory approach. Hence, reading a Shakespeare play and listening to a recording of it at the same time can be incredibly helpful. This is a particularly beneficial practice for anyone struggling to understand the language, or grappling with its syntax.

This is a literacy technique that I first tried for myself when reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. There, I often found that I could identify words from their pronunciation but not their spelling. Other words were utterly incomprehensible from their pronunciation, but spelled almost identically to their modern counterparts. Between both reading and listening I was able to begin piecing sentences together.  Listening to a more experienced reader give proper inflection to the language was also a boon. A tremendous meaning can be conveyed just through pitch, intonation, emphasis, and other forms of vocal modulation!

This same technique can be just as useful in reading Shakespeare’s works as in Chaucer’s. With Shakespeare, however, complex syntax is typically problematic for readers, as opposed to the medieval spelling/pronunciation of Middle English.

And here I do prefer the combination of reading and listening over simply listening to a recording. Firstly, it’s much easier to remain focused when you’re listening and reading than when you’re only listening to a recording. More importantly, however, reading along with the recording does help readers cultivate the ability to read Shakespeare for themselves. And this is the ultimate goal.

Readers may not want to always read and listen to a play simultaneously. It may be something you only want to do for one act, or for the first play a student reads. But in any event, it can of great help to those just getting started.

The value of reading annotated editions

I cannot overemphasize how much I love annotated editions of Shakespeare plays. Some of them even have the text of the play on the right hand page, and detailed notes about the text on the other. The Folger Shakespeare Library publishes beautiful copies of the plays in this style. Other editions such as Signet Classics or Penguin simply include a few footnotes at the bottom of each page. The Folger copies (which you can often scout at thrift or used book stores) include definitions for individual words and also for longer phrases that are no longer in our common vernacular. Since an entire page is dedicated to notes, there is space both for more definitions and greater depth of explanation.

We’ve also enjoyed using Dover’s Shakespeare Lexicon set for more refined searches. It’s also been wonderful for learning more about language usage across all of the plays. This 2-volume set is a great investment if you’re serious about reading Shakespeare’s works over and over throughout your life. However, I would definitely recommend at least beginning with the annotated Folger plays.

Why you should also annotate your own books

Book-lovers often cringe at the thought of writing in their beloved books, and I totally understand this sentiment. However… I do find annotating to be an extremely helpful practice. It is particularly useful when it comes to Shakespeare plays or other similarly complex works. For one, annotation slows the reader down and encourages them to read more closely. For another, it helps readers create their own map of the text that they can return to again and again. When you annotate, you're constantly asking yourself whether you understand each part of an argument or speech. You’re also noting the places where you do have questions, instead of just skipping blithely forward.

There are numerous ways to annotate a text. Readers may circle words they want to look up later and write comments or questions in the margins. Some like to underline key arguments or phrases, or highlight portions they want to return to later on. While annotations are ultimately a huge asset in preparing for a conversation or for a writing assignment, their more immediate and practical purpose is in turning a spotlight on portions of text that you’d like to be able to easily locate in the future.

A few more notes about annotating

Readers should be given a lot of latitude with the style and format of their annotations. We don’t all have the same intellectual approach to texts, and we certainly don’t need to have identical annotations. You might make suggestions as to what to include, but ultimately I would leave it up to the individual.

It’s also worth noting that annotating serves a completely different function than keeping a reading journal. Annotations should be compact and relatively terse, and making them shouldn't significantly slow down the reading process.

Lastly, if you're someone who dislikes writing in their books, you may want to find separate editions specifically for annotation. You can easily find second-hand copies of the plays or even print them yourself from websites like this. I personally have an older edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare that I use for reference and wouldn’t dream of writing in. So whenever I want to study a play more carefully, I pick up an inexpensive and/or used copy for notes.

Incorporate Shakespeare into all of your lessons

Incorporating excerpts from Shakespeare’s works into all of your lessons can help to acquaint your students with Shakespeare in a non-assuming but effective way.

For example, when I taught English grammar and had to find examples of different grammatical concepts, I often looked to Shakespeare. I always did my best to find examples from a play we had already read together, but I also chose other famous lines that the students would probably have heard before, or would be likely to encounter later in their lives. I loved using Shakespeare for this purpose because his language use is often striking and because his sentences are rich with meaning. In addition to highlighting the grammatical concept in question, the lines also contained interesting and important ideas for students to consider.

You could also use Shakespeare sentences for copy work with younger children (if you aren’t already, that is!) And if your students work with sentence diagramming at all, Shakespeare sentences are the best to diagram. They are particularly good to give students who love an extra challenge.

Teaching history with Shakespeare

While the Language Arts provide the readiest opportunity for studying Shakespeare, you can certainly incorporate short passages from Shakespeare’s historical plays into history lessons, as well, perhaps by finding monologues or scenes that describe characters. (For instance, Enobarbus’ speech about Cleopatra in II.ii of Antony and Cleopatra.)

Furthermore, if you are reading Plutarch’s Lives (or any of the wonderful retellings such as Our Young Folks' Plutarch or Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls), you might want to consider including portions of the Roman plays in your study, as Shakespeare himself used a translation of Plutarch’s Lives as his primary source material for those works (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Titus Andronicus.) There are many particulars – both large and small – included in his plays that come directly from Plutarch, and it can be exciting for readers to see just how significant Plutarch’s influence was on Shakespeare. (Shakespeare also turned to Chaucer for several of his plays, so you could do the same thing in that case, either with the original text or with a retelling for younger children.)

Taking an active part in Shakespeare plays

If your children or students ever have the opportunity, I also encourage them to act in plays themselves. This can be a great experience even if they aren’t otherwise passionate about theatre. Reading Shakespeare aloud is much more fun than reading it silently, and acting it out is even better. Most community theatre and children’s theatre groups will put on abbreviated plays periodically, as do many schools.

If you live in a more rural area with fewer cultural resources, you can also put on your own productions of plays with resources like Shakespeare in a Box. Each Shakespeare in a Box kit contains scripts for each character, as well as a handful of props. Actors can use their own closets for the rest of the costumes!

I did two of these “productions” with a group of girl friends when I was in 8th and 9th grade, respectively. The plays we performed were King Lear and Macbeth. Each year we had a sleepover/rehearsal on a Friday night then put on the production the following afternoon for all of the parents and other siblings. It was by no means award-winning theatre, but we had a blast. We were also engaging with the text and spent our Friday night in deep discussion about Shakespeare!

A quick note on meter

Reading and/or teaching Shakespeare is daunting enough without discussion of meter. And as with Organic Chemistry or English Grammar, a lot of people would probably prefer to go their entire lives without ever encountering it. However, being familiar with meter actually makes reading Shakespeare much easier and more enjoyable. When read in pentameter, the text seems to open itself up and becomes far more accessible to most audiences. But, we found there was so much to say on this subject that we’ve decided to save this discussion for another day when we can dedicate an entire post to the topic.

Check back again soon to learn more about the importance of reading in meter!

One last resource!

Lastly, we are about to publish a new Yesterday's Classics book on Shakespeare: Historical Tales from Shakespeare by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

​This book retells the stories of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, John, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III in chronological order. In this text, Quiller-Couch does a wonderful job of drawing connections between each of the stories, thereby creating a sense of continuity throughout the entire book.

We expect Historical Tales from Shakespeare to be available for purchase through www.yesterdaysclassics.com within in a week or two, and available at Amazon shortly after that!

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