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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 rhymes 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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Lisa Ripperton
 

  • Katja L. says:

    I don’t think I was ever terribly interested in nursery tales as a child, and recently I had come to look upon them as annoying and childish. But since you began giving away free copies of nursery tale books, I began reading them aloud to my little siblings and I was surprised at how they liked them! The Pancake story and the gingerbread boy story are favourites right now. 😉 So thank you!

    • In the preface to Great Children’s Stories Irene Hunt writes: “Let no adult underestimate the delight they [nursery tales] have afforded to the young throughout the decades. If you, as an adult, doubt that these stories have their place in the lives of modern children, take the time to seat yourself among a group of very young listeners and read the story of a patiently persistent Little Red Hen or a terrified Chicken Licken running in a frenzy from the falling sky. It will be a rewarding experience to find yourself the great giver of wonderful gifts.”

  • Eva says:

    I read the Feodor Rojankovsky tales to all my children. I also like any of the nursery tales illustrated by Paul Galdone, but I think they only come as single stories per book. What’s in Fox’s Sack? is probably out of print now, but it was a favorite at our house.

    • Eva, Thank you so much for mentioning Paul Galdone! I had thought of including him in my comprehensive post about nursery tales, but decided that he deserves a post to himself. And, fortunately, many of his books are still in print even if “What’s in Fox’s Sack” is not. I look forward to checking out that title, I am not familiar with it.

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