Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

Who hasn’t heard the line immortalised by Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, Snow White (1937)? The medium of film most likely in a small screen DVD format is how many of today’s children will first encounter folk tales and other traditional tales.  These ‘folk tales’ are stories ‘of the people’ passed down from generation to generation. The repertoire of stories known has narrowed over time and the Brothers Grimm have exerted a particularly strong influence on this. Just Imagine’s founder Nikki Gamble writes in Exploring Children’s Literature (2019) that 

…in the 17 different editions they produced between 1812 and 1858 editorial intervention is evident and frequent emendations change the tales to reflect the social and moral values of nineteenth-century and middle-class culture.

Indeed the version that we all know so well and enjoy would have been modified even further:

Because most of Disney’s sources were short and emblematic, additional material needed to be added to lengthen the plot and sustain interest in the characters.  For characterization Disney relied on the formula of early movies, which themselves drew from the nineteenth century melodrama: the innocent heroine, the gallant hero, the evil villain, and comic relief in the form of the clown (Zipes, 1999 in Exploring Children’s Literature, 2019).

So if the moral and indeed the composition of the tale reflect historic and current cultural and social influences how about the words and concepts within them?

Mirrors have long been part of literary tradition and far from being simple are high concept words. As Jillian Lauren writes

But mirrors are more than just a place to check your makeup or your air guitar technique. In myths and fairytales, mirrors are often a mystical thing- half of this world and half of another. Mirrors play an integral role in Snow White, The Snow Queen, Beauty and the Beast, Through the Looking Glass and the myth of Narcissus, among others. Perseus kills Medusa by using a mirror. Mirrors can provide portents of future events, can hold malevolent spells, can even be a portal to other worlds.

As part of Just Imagine’s training programme for teachers we deliver a Between the Lines course over three days (with time in-between for connected activities).  Part of this course looks at vocabulary: It is estimated that there are one million English words; 600,000 words in the OED of which 171,476 are in use today.  Just 2,000 words make up 80% of spoken language. Words are important:

Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition but also implies how that word fits into the world (Stahl 2005)

It’s been said often in recent years that ‘literary’ fiction for young people has had its day.  We master words by meeting them, not by avoiding them. The only way to make books – and knowledge – accessible is to give children the necessary words.  And how has that always been done? By adult conversation and reading . (Geraldine McCaughrean)

And so, with this all in mind, what is a mirror?  You could ask your class to write down their own definition for the word ‘mirror’.  Share definitions and discuss similarities and differences. Now compare with the definition from the Longman Dictionary of the English Language and note divergence

Mirror: 1 polished or smooth surface (e.g. of polished metal or silvered glass) that forms images by reflection. 2 something that gives a true representation 

The contexts in which the word ‘mirror’ might be used are very rich and diverse.  Definitions may have referred to imitating or mimicking. They may have been defined as a synchronized routine in dance or gymnastics.

Now ask if the children can think of any stories with mirrors? The most famous is perhaps the mirror which never lies belonging to the evil queen in Snow White.  Others include The Snow Queen, The Lady of Shallott, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Anthony Browne’s Through the Magic Mirror. Mirrors play different roles in different stories. In Snow White, the mirror is a window to the soul of the wicked queen.

The Lady in The Lady of Shallott can only view shadows of the real world in her mirror. Here the mirror symbolises isolation. The symbolic meanings of the word ‘mirror’ are not covered by the dictionary definition above – the context is required to truly make sense of the word. 

Indeed in The Lady of Shallot, Tennyson’s atmospheric and emotional poem the point at which the mirror cracks is the climax of the story

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side; 

‘The curse is come upon me!’ cried

The Lady of Shallot

Nikki Gamble has written full notes for The Lady of Shallot as part of our Take One Book programme.  This is a flexible, literature based framework for teaching English.  It has a subscriber model with 50 sequences currently available for Primary School.  You can explore exemplar units and the framework on takeonebook.org.

The Glassmaker’s Daughter by Dianne Hofymeyr is also featured in Take One Book.  In it the mirror is used to deliver a different outcome.  It is a catalyst for happiness but as in Snow White, it arguably reflects the truth of the soul of the characters.

Mirrors feature in a sinister way in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen retold by Geraldine McCaughrean and beautifully illustrated with stunning silhouettes by Laura Barrett.  The story starts with the mirror smashing into tiny slivers

The winds swallowed them up and swept them around the world, where their sharp magic jabbed and stabbed loving hearts and froze the good inside of them.

This book features in the Gingerbread Cottage selection part of Just Imagine’s Reading Journey.  This is a curated collection of high quality books to support reading for pleasure. Alongside it we have developed an exciting app with an inbuilt reading journal and challenges to engage your readers.

Another book featured in the Reading Journey for Years Five and Six is Natasha Farrant’s Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror. The inside cover reads

‘Mirror, mirror on the wall… what makes a princess excellent?’ An enchantress flings her magic mirror into our universe. Reflected in it are princesses who refuse to be pretty, polite or obedient. Through the centuries and around the world these girls are fierce, brave, and determined to do the rescuing themselves.

Whilst Guardian Books of the Year 2019 says

Here are eight princesses for the Rebel Girls generation: bold, empowered, full of curiosity, adventure and determined to be true to themselves. Natasha Farrant’s original stories are set in different times all around the world, blending modern and traditional storytelling with glowing full colour illustrations by debut artist Lydia Corry in a glorious gift book.

The desert princess protects her people from the king with the black and gold banner. The forest princess takes a crocodile for a pet. An island princess explores the high seas. A mountain princess puts kindness above being royal. And in a tower-block in a city, Princess saves her community garden from the hands of urban developers.

Natahsa Farrant’s book shows how far we are beyond Disney.  Are you?