Fairy Tales, Villains, And The Color Gray

Ten-year-old Little Willy and his beloved pet, Searchlight, enter a dog sled race in order to win enough money to save his grandfather’s farm. His biggest competition is a Native American named Stone Fox whose claim to fame is that he’s never lost a race. For a good portion of John Reynolds Gardiner’s book “Stone Fox”, this imposing man is quite easily perceived as the villain. He is large and intimidating, doesn’t speak to non-Native Americans, and even strikes Willy in the face for getting too close to his dogs. Clear-cut bad guy, right?  Think again.

Little Willy learns that Stone Fox is entering these races in order to buy back land that was taken from his people by the white man. An insight into his motivation, this new information often leads my third-graders to make comments like,

Oh, Stone Fox and Little Willy are trying to win the race for the same reason.  Now it kind of makes sense that Stone Fox doesn’t talk to white people. 

They just took land from the Native Americans? Why does he have to buy it back if they just took it? That’s not fair!

Still, though, Stone Fox hit Little Willy, and the kids can’t really justify that one. So, even though they can better understand why he is the way he is, it’s pretty clear he’s still the bad guy.

The day of the race, Little Willy and Searchlight give it their all. They have a commanding lead for much of the race until Stone Fox begins to gain momentum in the home stretch. They’re neck and neck until, all of a sudden, Searchlight’s heart bursts and she falls to the ground just short of the finish line. In that moment, Stone Fox stops his sled and comes to Little Willy’s side. He confirms that Searchlight is dead, then stands up and draws a line in the snow. He shouts to the oncoming racers that they are forbidden to cross the line, and then sends Little Willy to cross the finish line with Searchlight in his arms.

The ensuing discussion is always so amazing. The kids don’t know what to make of Stone Fox anymore. Many kids want to simply change their minds and say that he’s a good guy now. Some of the more mature students realize that they can’t just throw away some of the bad things he did, and that they must now hold in their minds the good and the bad. They so desperately want to be able to label him as “all good” or “all evil”, and the beauty of it is that we never really come to a consensus. He’s a complex character who more closely mirrors the troubled or misunderstood members of our society than any character they’ve been exposed to thus far. It’s truly an inspiring discussion to witness and be a part of.

Most everyone is introduced to literature at an early age with the princes, princesses, and wicked witches of fairy tales. These stories, while engaging, are quite simplistic; there is a hero or heroine, and a very clear villain. Children continue to be exposed to this age-appropriate interpretation of society through cartoons, video games, and picture books. As a former teacher at the elementary level, I have been given the privilege of introducing a group of children to literature like “Stone Fox” that presents characters who are much more complex; the lines between good and evil become blurred, and the characters more closely reflect real people in the world around us.

Every time there is a majorly divisive issue in the news, I become increasingly aware that we need to do a better job developing in children the ability to seek out an understanding of the whole picture, whether it be of a person or an issue.  The more sensitive the topic, the more it seems that people want to reduce the issue to good and evil, black and white.  Not only that, but if you are a person seeking to understand the gray area, you may find yourself being labeled all sorts of things; un-American if you attempt to understand how a person becomes a terrorist, anti-Semitic if you try to look carefully at both sides of the war in Gaza, or a racist if you question how our country is handling illegal immigration.  Rather than engage in healthy debate, people from all sides so often shut each other down, appalled that anyone would dare to entertain an idea that strays from their limited view.

By exposing children to literature with complex villains, we give them a safe space to roll around in the gray area.  They get to grapple with the facts and hopefully will conclude that even the most unlikable characters have some relatable human qualities worth understanding.  Insight into a character’s background and motivation does not often take away that “villain” status; that’s okay because that’s not the goal.  Finding the humanity in the villain in childhood stories can be a precursor to a willingness to stay open to the humanity that can be found in any conflict, large or small.  In fact, It’s the dehumanizing of people that often leads to horrific acts of all kinds.

Does Osama Bin Laden have a family?

I will never forget the day that question was posed in my second-grade classroom.  It was the morning after the news broke that Osama Bin Laden had been killed and my students came in buzzing.  Some of them were high-fiving, others were cheering, and still others were looking confused and alarmed.  I can remember taking a moment as the kids were settling in for morning meeting, knowing that I was about to handle an extremely sensitive topic.  While it can be tempting to just avoid talking about such a hot-button issue, experience tells most teachers that it’s important to nip misinformation in the bud.   More importantly, it is an opportunity for them to navigate an important issue in a safe place, with guidance, which can be an invaluable learning experience that they might otherwise miss.  This particular subject matter needed to be handled promptly and with care.

First, we got the simple facts straight, Yes, Osama Bin Laden was killed.  President Obama didn’t kill him, but he was the one who sent people from the military to do it.  

Then, seeing that things weren’t quite settled for many of them,  I allowed them to ask questions.  If I could answer them I would, I told them, but if not, then they could go home and talk about it with their families.  It became clear that the class was pretty divided between kids who took the news at face value, accepting that the bad guy needed to be killed, and the kids whose foundations had been rocked by the idea that “we” had killed somebody and lots of people were cheering.  It was the second group of kids who had most of the questions…and they were the BIG questions.

Isn’t it wrong to kill people?

Why did they kill him?  Why didn’t they just arrest him and put him in jail?

Does Osama Bin Laden have a family?  Does he have kids?  Won’t they miss him?

Welcome to the gray area, kids.  To be honest, in that moment I was in awe of the little beings in front of me.  They sat quietly, listening to one another’s questions, and the wheels were turning for everyone– myself included.  After answering what I could as factually as I could and sending the rest home for families and caregivers, I let them know that the variety of feelings and questions that were present in our classroom were present for grown-ups all around the country and probably the world.  I told them that I was proud that, in our classroom, we could feel safe to ask a question and feel a feeling that is different from the person next to us.  I wanted them to know that sometimes grown-ups have a hard time with that, and that they should be proud of themselves.

I’m sharing this story not because I have a particular opinion on Osama Bin Laden’s death, but because I was so struck by the willingness of those kids to ask questions that, if posed by an adult, might be considered inflammatory.  They were perfectly reasonable questions from the perspective of a 7-year-old, and should be reasonable as an adult, yet those kinds of questions would be considered unacceptable in many circles.

When we’re caught up in strong feelings we tend to become the most resistant to seeing the whole picture.  We need to learn to embrace the internal conflict that occurs when our values are at odds with our feelings.  Relief that Osama Bin Laden is dead can coexist with the belief that it’s wrong to kill another human being.  Kids, and adults for that matter, need not shy away away from this discord.  Embrace the struggle.

Before that conversation occurred in my classroom I would have thought this was too much for a second-grader to handle.  It turns out, many of them are already noticing when the values they’ve been taught are not quite lining up with what’s going on around them– they’re actually pretty good at sniffing out the gray area.  Giving them the tools to grapple and think for themselves is our job.  Fortunately, kids don’t have to wrestle with the major issues of the world to hone these skills.  Nothing sucks kids in like a good story.  Get them invested in a protagonist and then help them look for the humanity in the villain, see both sides of the problem, or understand that sometimes there is no perfect solution.

We can all benefit from exercising our neutrality so that we don’t let our filters, expectations, or beliefs cloud our ability to see reality as it is.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have more people in the world who are willing see their differences as an opportunity to learn?  It’s got to start with the little ones!

Do you have favorite stories with juicy villains that you can recommend?  Share them in the comments!

My recommendations:

 Stone Fox, John Reynolds Gardiner

 Poppy, Avi.

And if you haven’t already seen it, Wicked!

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3 thoughts on “Fairy Tales, Villains, And The Color Gray

  1. Wow, this was such a great perspective! I’m quite talkative, and often write as much as I speak, but I have to admit, I’m a bit at a loss for words. I’m a speech-languague improvement teacher who uses many of the strategies and suggestions you have written about on your blog, but this is one that I have never tried; giving kids the opportunity to develop opposing views of a character. I often have the kids compare and contrast characters, then draw an opinion about them based on the evidence they have collected, but that evidence is usually overwhelmingly pointed in one direction or another. Never have I presented characters that are multifaceted for the students to really delve into the inferential questions I ask. Current events are a great way to spark that kind of thinking. Thank you so much for a fantastic post, for the inspiration to ignite more character analysis and debate among my students, and for following my blog. As you may have realized, my blog is really about me challenging myself to do things I have never done but would like to try. Thanks for giving me a new challenge to attempt, and hopefully adopt regularly.

    • Thank you so much for reading! I’ll be honest, I would love to have done more of this in my classroom, but we did spend a lot more time gathering evidence that would lead to a pretty obvious conclusion about a character. It’s an important skill! I just always found that the kids were so much more engaged in the “crunchy” stuff, ya know? I’d love to hear about how this goes with your students, and if you find any great villains, I’d like to get a good list going. I’m also loving your blog. I’m all about getting out of my comfort zone and pushing myself to improve, so thanks for the inspiration!

      • I’ve been thinking about your post, and I could only think of one character like the one you described in a movie called Monster House. Have you seen it? I believe it’s a PG13 movie with a lot of sexual innuendo, so you probably wouldn’t be able to watch the whole movie with your students. I’ll be on the look out for more elementary school friendly material. Thanks for keeping me thinking and for visiting my blog.

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