A professor of German at the University of Minnesota who’s written many books on the influence of fairy tales, Zipes has long been a critic of “platform storytelling,” which generally involves a performer, on a stage, entertaining spellbound children. Essentially this calls to mind the whole Disney experience, of kids being wowed by a spectacle they wholeheartedly embrace. What Zipes wants instead is a storytelling process in which students take control, creating and performing new tales while revisiting and revising old ones. The idea is for children to grasp the transformative power—as opposed to the entertainment value—of the craft.
For several years, Zipes has put this philosophy into practice with his Neighborhood Bridges program, now practiced in roughly 10 Minneapolis schools. Both teachers and specialists use a variety of techniques, he writes, to “animate and enable children to become storytellers of their own lives.” The students, for instance, create countertales to traditional stories such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” With the latter, kids might consider the themes of child abuse and abandonment. They also use fables about animals to create peace tales, myths to explore heroism, and tall tales to examine the adventures of ordinary people.
All of this is deeply engaging, though at times Zipes’ own ideology threatens to undermine his efforts. Social activist that he is, he sometimes seems less interested in having kids create their own tales than in spinning out metaphors for reform. Still, the value of Zipes’ enterprise is undeniable: In a time of near-relentless test prep, getting children to use stories and imagination to look closely at their world seems as refreshing as it does revolutionary.