Commentary | Education

Lessons—Fairy Tales as a Learning Tool for Young Offenders

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Fairy tales as a learning tool for young offenders

By  Richard Rothstein

San Antonio – Most people recognize the importance of reading stories to toddlers, who can then learn how books work (for example, that a line of text proceeds from left to right), how letters form words and how narrative flows.

But literacy is only one benefit of storytelling. Another is the chance for children to identify with fanciful characters who try to work out conflicts with others and within themselves. If very young children can’t do this in the safety of an adult’s lap, the later costs to them and to society can be greater than poor reading skills.

Can any of this loss be made up later? A storybook program at a San Antonio juvenile prison suggests that it may never be too late.

Three people came together to create the program. Celeste Guzman works for Gemini Ink, a group that seeks opportunities for creative writers to give workshops in schools, seniors’ centers, shelters for battered women and prisons. Glenn Faulk, a prison officer at the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Correctional Treatment Center, designs activities for violent youths while they serve their sentences. Grady Hillman, a poet, trains artists and writers to teach in community settings.

Their plan evolved slowly, with few of its possibilities apparent at first.

Youths at the Krier juvenile prison are expected to perform public service. Mr. Faulk proposed to several that rather than mow lawns at the courthouse or pick up trash on the highway, they write children’s books that could be donated to a library at a battered-women’s shelter. He thought the idea might be particularly attractive to youths who had themselves fathered children before being imprisoned. He also knew that in writing children’s stories, the youths would be forced to abandon their tough-guy street language.

Ms. Guzman then recruited Mr. Hillman to run a writing workshop for seven juvenile offenders who volunteered. He began each session by reading a children’s book aloud, expecting to teach story structure and character development. But it soon became apparent that the storytelling had another, unanticipated effect: the six young men and one young woman, none of whom had lived healthy childhoods that included adults’ reading stories, were enjoying the tales themselves.

Their favorite, Mr. Hillman said, was “Millions of Cats,” by Wanda Gag. It is an “ugly duckling” kind of story in which an old woman wants to pick a single cat as a pet, from millions of cats who hope to be selected. Her choice is unexpected, a cat who has been least aggressive in seeking her favor.

Mr. Hillman surmised that the story was popular because the youths had spent their adolescence driven toward arrogance and feigning toughness. The notion that humility might have a reward was surprisingly attractive to them.

Mr. Hillman’s own favorite was “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” by Beatrix Potter. Because Peter disobeys his mother’s rules, he is trapped in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Peter’s predicament becomes progressively worse, but he ultimately resolves it and escapes to the security of home. This, Mr. Hillman thought, might be a parable for the young offenders’ own lives.

The workshop’s explicit goal was the youths’ contribution of their work to the community. Each of them wrote a story. Some were fanciful, like a tale about a wizard who can’t spell and whose wishes are therefore fulfilled improperly: when he wants a bath, he spells “bat,” and so instead of getting a bath, he gets a bat that chases him around his cave. Some stories were more realistic, like one about a girl who has to accept that she is shorter than others.

Ms. Guzman had the storybooks printed, and in May the youths read their stories aloud at a prison meeting to which their parents were invited. Now, as the young offenders earn behavior points that make them eligible for supervised trips away from the center, they will be permitted to perform readings for children on the outside.

Thirty years ago, literacy programs were more common in adult and juvenile prisons alike, because reading and writing skills were thought important for future employment. Some adult programs included “bibliotherapy,” using literature to explore psychological problems as a step to rehabilitation.

But today, prisons give more emphasis to punishment, protection of the community and restitution. The San Antonio program is an exception to that trend, though not the only one. Mr. Hillman now hopes to train writers around the country to use storybooks with youthful offenders. If all children heard fairy tales when they were small enough to sit on laps, though, perhaps fewer would have to do so in prison.

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