5 Digitized Fairy Tales from Our Collection of Early Children’s Books

May 1, 2020 | Myrna

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Fairy tales have a special ability to spark the imagination and transport readers to other worlds. These stories have been told and retold, with different tellers adding their unique perspective.

This post features five fascinating fairy tales from our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, a research collection of rare and notable children’s books. Hundreds of digitized fairy tale books from this collection are available from home.

Anyone can read these digitized books, no library card required! 



1. Puss in Boots (1897)

Cover of Puss in Boots book showing cat putting on boots

Digitized book

Puss in Boots (ebook)

About the fairy tale

The miller’s youngest son despairs when he inherits only a cat in his father’s will. But this is no ordinary cat. All the cat needs is a pair of boots to set in motion a clever plan to help his owner. This edition adapts French writer Charles Perrault’s Puss in Boots (or Le Maître chat ou le Chat botté) with illustrations by Walter Crane.

Puss in Boot approaching youngest son
The youngest son, modeled on Walter Crane himself, listens to his new cat.

This edition has a hidden joke from the illustrator. Walter Crane snuck a self-portrait into Puss in Boots, drawing himself as the youngest son. In the late 19th century, Crane illustrated many fairy tales for English readers. His works included Brothers Grimm stories, nursery tales and many Charles Perrault stories. Crane’s fairy tale illustrations were influenced by Japanese art, which he studied extensively. He adopted the thick black lines and deep perspective style common in Japanese prints of the time.



2. Red Riding Hood (1863)

Side by side front and back book covers shaped like Red Riding Hood with a wolf underfoot

Digitized book

Red Riding Hood (ebook)

About the fairy tale

Red Riding Hood sets off through the woods with a "little pot of butter" for her Grandma. Along the way she encounters a dangerous and cunning wolf. This shape book edition was both written and designed by Lydia L. Very. 

Shaped book opened revealing text and illustrations
Red Riding Hood arrives at her Grandma's cottage.

Lydia L. Very’s Red Riding Hood was one of the first shape books or "die cut" books published in the United States. This book was a part of publisher L. Prang & Co.’s "Doll Book" series, which featured Cinderella, Robinson Crusoe and other popular characters. All of these "Doll Books" were cut in the shape of their main characters. 



3. The Wild Swans (1904)

Book cover of The Wild Swans by Hans Andersen with illustration of flying swans with crowns and a woman in a cape

Digitized book

The Wild Swans (ebook)

About the fairy tale

Eleven princes are transformed into swans by their stepmother and only their sister Princess Elsie can save them. Princess Elsie is in a race against time as she rushes to complete the magic spell that will save her brothers. This edition is a translation of the original Hans Christian Anderson tale with illustrations by Helen Stratton. 

Swans carry a girl through the air in a sling
Princess Elsie's brothers transport her across the sea.

The Wild Swans is one of Hans Christian Anderson lesser-known stories, but similar stories have shown up across European folklore. The number of princes and types of bird can differ between retellings. The Brothers Grimm recorded The Seven Ravens story in Germany. Norwegian folklore tells of The Twelve Wild Ducks.   

Helen Stratton's The Wild Swans illustrations were first published in her The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen collection. The collection features more than 30 stories and 400 illustrations. The book's beautiful Art Nouveau illustrations made it a popular gift book. Nineteenth century gift books were typically elaborately illustrated with ornamental bindings. Gift books were usually released in time for Christmas. 



4. The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk (1863)

Jack and the Bean-Stalk

Digitized book

The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk (ebook)

About the fairy tale

Jack is a foolish and lazy boy until a fairy tells him a family secret. A giant has been holding Jack's father and sisters captive in a castle! Jack sets out to save his family, even if it means climbing a bean-stalk up into the sky. This edition was both adapted and illustrated by George Cruikshank. 

Illustration of sleeping giant and boy reaching up to hen on table with the text Jack Gets the Golden Hen Away from the Giant
Jack steals the Golden Hen from the drunk and sleepy Giant.

George Cruikshank’s adaptation of Jack and the Bean-Stalk and other fairy tales were controversial among Victorian readers. Cruikshank was a teetotaler and inserted temperance themes into his fairy tales. For example, in Jack and the Bean-Stalk, Cruikshank attributes the Giant’s faults to drunkeness. Charles Dickens was close friends with Cruikshank, but condemned his rewritten fairy tales as "Fairy Frauds."



5. The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1910)

Book cover of The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning with illustration of boy playing pipe alongside dancing children

Digitized book

The Pied Piper of Hamelin (ebook)

About the fairy tale

Rats plague the town of Hamelin, making "nests inside men's Sunday hats" and biting "babies in the cradles." A Piper arrives offering his magical extermination services to the desperate townsfolk. Things turn sour when Hamelin’s Mayor refuses to pay the Piper's fee and the Piper uses his magic on the town’s children. This edition features a verse retelling by Robert Browning and illustration by Kate Greenaway.

Children gathering behind Piped Piper playing music and leading the way
The children of Hamelin follow the Piper.

Robert Browning’s poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin was first released in 1842 at the height of the Industrial Revolution. At the time, child labour and working conditions were a contentious political issue. Browning and his wife, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were involved in advocating for stronger child labour laws. Many readers believe Browning intended The Pied Piper of Hamelin as a warning to greedy factory owners and politicians.



Do you have a favourite fairy tale from our digitized collections or elsewhere? Tell us in the comments!