I was seven years old when my parents bought me my first book — not a picture book, but a real, bound hardcover with minimal illustrations and many, many beautiful pages filled with nothing but words. This was the open door for me, my gateway into a life devoted to literature and, perhaps, the pursuit of writing it. It just so happens that my first real book, my gateway, was Grimm’s fairy tales.
I remember staying up late and re-reading my favorite tale, about a cat and a mouse that become best friends. Of course, their friendship doesn’t last, and the cat’s nature gets the best of him — he cheats the mouse out of the winter food they had been storing, and the story ends when the cat devours the mouse as a final meal. It didn’t matter that the cat actually cared for the mouse — at least, according to the story he did. It was the cat’s nature.
At that age, I don’t think I ever registered the meaning of death properly but simply took it as a didactic of sorts. Don’t pick the wrong friends, the Grimm brothers told me. Don’t go to strangers’ houses, the Grimm brothers told me. If you’re a bad person, you will get your toes chopped off, the Grimm brothers told me. Little did I know, these stories gave me an orientation: It gave me an affinity to tragedy. I was 7 years old, and I already knew that life hardly ever — and in the case of the Grimms, never — offers happy endings. Call me a cynic, a Debbie downer, whatever. For literature, what’s truly sad is when literary fanatics can’t understand an appreciation of a tragedy done well: executed to make you sympathize with the characters, and to make you feel like, realistically, that cat could very well be someone you know who has a very bad habit of having affairs.
The Grimm brothers were my first interaction with literature, period, but they were also my first interaction with a different kind of ending: sad ones, and I will go so far as to say realistic ones. That’s not to say that Grimms’ tales are realistic; their plots are far-fetched, to say the least. But as a kid, it was the first time I caught myself feeling like the endings were real, not rewritten into the success stories I previously saw, primarily through picture books.
I was a spoiled little girl, an only child who got everything she wanted and whose worst experiences came from nightmares. For people like me, who truly did live in a dream world with unlimited Barbies, no bedtime, and no sugar limitations, tragedy in literature can help with personal growth. The stupid little child who perceived herself to be the princess of every Disney movie saw that, in the Grimms’ world, Disney princesses would get chopped up and fried to a crisp sometimes. And that was OK, even enjoyable, somehow. I learned at an early age that literature’s job is not to paint the clouds on a canvas, to let the reader sit back and relax. It’s to show you the rain, to make even the worst-case scenarios function well and serve a purpose to the story, to make the reader work for its meaning.
Through the Brothers Grimm, I transformed as a reader, from the mindless little girl who read a couple lines and watched the pretty pictures to the skeptical reader who exists today, always looking for what’s real, always seeking more meaning, and always questioning.
Reach Features Editor Hayat Norimine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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