Jack and his giant contribution;Briefing;Profile;Jack Zipes;News amp; opinion

5th November 1999 at 00:00
Charismatic professor Jack Zipes has become a world authority on fairy tales and children's literature, but he still couldn't get his 10-year-old daughter to read the right books. Geraldine Brennan reports

JACK ZIPES has the right sort of name for a fairy tale.

In his case it is a trickster tale about an adventurer transplanted from his native New York to the Mid-West who hacks a path through the tangled forest of European literary tradition,returning with strange and wonderful treasures.

Zipes is officially professor of German at the University of Minnesota, but to teachers he is the Wizard of Stories. This month he will receive the International Brothers Grimm Award, a 1 million Yen or pound;6,000 research grant, from the International Institute for Children's Literature in Osaka, Japan.

When he gets up in a lecture theatre, the audience visibly relaxes, puts its collective pen down and settles back in its collective imaginary armchair. Later, you might be worried about having missed something but who cares? He's got the soothing presence of Garrison Keillor, but with more of a Robert de Niro delivery.

Of more than 30 books listed on his "short" (10-page) CV, Creative Storytelling (1995) and his own favourite, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (1983), are the most well-thumbed in this country. This year's book is When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and their Tradition (Routledge), which charts how the people's folk tale was polished up to become a plaything of the rich in 18th-century France and Germany, and given a sophisticated educational function (at a time when it had gone underground in Britain). He's now working on The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, due out in March 2000 from Oxford University Press, and is researching the deeper (medieval) roots of the fairy tale in France and Italy.

This is the tip of an iceberg of Zipes scholarship on where stories come from, what they achieve and who they were intended for. The third element of the question seems the toughest to answer. Today, Zipes argues, when "extraordinary sums of money can be made from publishing for children" and "books are packaged and marketed like computer games, T-shirts and running shoes", it's as difficult to separate the adult's agenda from the child's as it was when the Grimms and Andersen first published.

At a conference in Canada this year, he outlined the dilemma for those who want children's literature to attract academic respectability, public profile and a serious critical climate: the more this is achieved, the further the literature is taken from children and the more obvious the gulf between what children like to read and what adults like them to read. Critics ignore this at their peril.

"Children's opinions and judgments are probably the last consideration when critics are evaluating books for young readers. Even though we would like to convince ourselves that we have their interests at heart, we think we can determine their values. Implicit in all the evaluation by adults is that there is an absolute value - that we can judge whether a book is good or bad."

He recalls his own dismay on an earlier research trip to Paris in 1994 when his daughter, then aged 10, was sent a box of Sweet Valley Twins stories from home.

"To my horror, she began reading them over and over again. I felt as though I was living with subversive agents in the house, much as I felt when my sister gave her her first Barbie at four. Where had we failed? I hadn't appreciated the value my daughter placed on those books."

Many well-meaning attempts by adults to include children in a debate about their reading are, he argues, "simply making children jump through adult hoops". He includes children reviewing for adult publications and children judging book awards managed by adults in this category. These attempts, he argues, are games that grown-ups play to make themselves feel that they are being inclusive, or inject some "cute factor" into their own critical responses and marketing strategies.

He believes that this is a reflection of general confusion in millennial Western society about the needs of the child. "We have modified control through restraint and now deprive children by over-indulging them, dangling commodities and technology before their eyes and pressuring them to produce and compete; then we blame them for their response. The answer of many adults is more control, as if hanging the Ten Commandments on the wall will solve the problem. The child is in a misrepresented and beleaguered position."

Back home, his Children's Theatre of Minneapolis project works with some of the most misrepresented and beleaguered children in North America. This year it has $100,000 (pound;61,000) from the Open Institute in New York (founded by George Soros) to bring drama, storytelling and writing workshops to inner-city schools.

The project was inspired by Zipes's contact with the progressive Berlin Grips Theatre in the late 1960s, as well as the work of the late Gianni Rodari, the Italian children's writer and storyteller. The transformation of this groundbreaking creative excitement to Midwest classrooms - "getting children to become their own storytellers" - is documented in Creative Storytelling and the diaries of his school visits that he has kept for 20 years. Now the theatre, once a one-man band, has a team of actors but Zipes visits regularly.

The participating schools get weekly workshops over a year. "A storyteller or writer can't make any difference with one session. You have to be there for the long haul and give the teachers something to build on when you've gone. And you have to start from what the children are reading: comics, Harlequin romances, whatever". Good solid National Year of Reading project material, in other words - no magic fairy dust, and no pumpkins at midnight either.

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