An unexpected twist in producing illustrated books for the Little Zebra Books is that a lot of the source material we work with is very dark. In reviewing the current batch of folktales we are illustrating there is a lot of bloodshed. In The Man Who Lived Alone, a woman is devoured by a hyena. In The Land Of No Old People, the young people start killing the old people with knives and machetes. Even the stories involving just animals are full of deceit, treachery and plans to kill friends for the purpose of eating their bodily organs (Baboon and Crocodile for example).

More surprising still for me has been the realization that many of Jesus’ parables are not G-rated material. My original plan had been to illustrate each of the parables of Jesus, but I’m unsure how to approach a parable like the parable of the vineyard owner (Mark 12) in which servants are beaten and killed and then the owner shows up and kills all the farmers and gives the vineyards to someone else.

Depicting folktales and parables with these kinds of violence makes me squeamish for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve been raised on a diet of sanitized folktales usually via Disney in which the original stories by Brothers Grimm, etc. have been expunged of their nastier plot turns. And second, I think the Biblical stories that I grew up with have mostly glossed over the violent nature of the Old Testament narratives and Jesus’ stark parables. Finally, It’s hard to justify in my own mind the practice of sharing such violent stories with children in Africa for whom real stories of genocide and unimaginable atrocities are often only a generation away.

Sharing illustrated folktales and parables with Africa’s children seems to be a project that on moral grounds is unassailable. But the violent and negative content of many folktales throws a spanner in the works.

One thing we can do is be selective in the stories we choose for certain age groups. Another option would be to “Disney-fy” the stories and wipe out any behavior that we deem inappropriate.

I’m not exactly sure what we’ll do at this point but it will be interesting to see how the full range of stories is accepted by parents, educators and children in Africa. Their standards are no doubt different from mine and they might gravitate to certain stories based on norms that are completely alien to me.

Let me end by sharing this image from Would You Bloom contrasting the Disney versions of classic stories with their original versions. (HT Neatorama)

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Grim Fairy Tales (and Parables)