The Italian fairy tale “Snow White” is one of the best-known fairy tales, one of the most dramatic and exciting, and it is also one of the most violent and frightening, including as it does murder, cannibalism, and red-hot shoes. Our state standards mandate the use of folk and fairy tales up to grade 7, so we might choose to save the original version of the story for middle school and up. However, it is easy enough to find this story in cleaned-up versions for the younger ones.
The basic story is familiar to most of us. A wicked stepmother (in the oldest versions of the story, it is Snow White’s own mother, and sometimes it is an unrelated Wicked Queen, but most tellings of the story have a stepmother), when her magic mirror tells her that her stepdaughter is more beautiful than she is, plots to kill her. The girl, Snow White, escapes to a cottage in the woods where she lives under the care of seven little men. The wicked stepmother makes several attempts to kill the girl, and eventually manages to put her into a death-like coma. The little men put Snow White into a glass coffin. She is awakened by the kiss of a prince, marries him, and lives happily ever after.
- Illustrators Nancy Ekholm Burkert and Trina Schart Hyman have both done very beautiful picture books of this story.
- Quentin Greban has lavishly illustrated the original story.
- Jane Ray’s Snow White is a 3-D pop-up — put it in your center area for students to explore.
- Roald Dahl did a musical! The link takes you to a complete package with CD and CD-ROM.
There are also some online choices:
- StoryNory has a page for “Snow White,” where you can read the story or download an excellent recording of it.
- School Express has an online storybook of “Snow White,” without the gory parts.
- Kay Vander’s Snow White page is an excellent resource on the story, with links to a number of different online texts. Her lesson plans and discussion questions will interest and challenge high school classes.
“Snow White” is not a story that shows up all over the world as some fairy tales do. Nonetheless, there are some alternate versions available for comparison:
- Fiona French has done a wonderful modern update called Snow White in New York. It has a jazz theme and an Art Deco look, and would be a great opportunity for comparison. Download a lesson plan for such a comparison, organized for Four Blocks.
- Denise Sager’s lesson plan leads students to make a comparison between “Snow White” and a Moroccan folk tale.
- An Aztec Snow White story makes an interesting comparison. The presence of an apple in the story makes me question its authenticity, but it can be enjoyed as an alternate retelling of “Snow White.”
For most of the students in our classrooms, the Disney film version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will be the most familiar. Snow White was the first full-length animated film, and was a technological breakthrough.
- A Modern Mechanix article from 1938 gives details about how the film was made, and provides an interesting starting point for a lesson on technological change.
- Printable coloring pages using images from the film can make a light-hearted activity.
- It is a little bit shocking to learn that most American adults can name more of the Seven Dwarfs from this movie than Supreme Court Justices. Have older students take a survey to check this claim, and report their results with charts and oral summaries. This is a great time to discuss what makes a survey believable: large numbers of random people asked the same, clear questions. Talk about why asking all members of a single family won’t give you the same results as asking a variety of people.
- The wicked stepmother poisons an apple to give to Snow White. However, she only poisons half, and eats the other half herself to gain Snow White’s trust. How could someone poison half an apple? Let students come up with various solutions to this problem facing the wicked stepmother. If this seems a little macabre as a question, focus instead on poison safety.
- Another health point comes up if the retelling that you use includes the scene in which Snow White’s nemesis laces her corsets so tightly that she can’t breathe and faints dead away. Tightly laced corsets were known, in the past, for interfering with women’s breathing and digestion, and even for deforming the bones and internal organs. Modern women don’t wear these things, but they do sometimes make fashion and beauty choices that can have negative health effects, such as high heels, tanning, or unhealthy efforts to be very thin. Many students also carry backpacks so heavy that they can do damage to their backs — not always a fashion choice, but sometimes. Challenge students to list fashion and beauty choices that may affect health, and to think of alternatives.
- Mirrors are an important example of reflective surfaces, and a great tool for the study of light. The BBC has a good basic lesson on mirrors and light for elementary level students. Stardate has a cool lesson plan on mirrors with an astronomy twist, for secondary level classes.
- While you’re thinking about reflection, take some time to wonder why snow is white in the first place. The answer: because the snow crystals have lots of surfaces for the light to reflect from. That’s why it is so bright. Once it melts and becomes water again, it is flat, and there is less opportunity for reflection.
- The Wicked Queen or wicked stepmother character in “Snow White” is really evil. The bad guys in some fairy tales can be misunderstood or misguided, but here we have a woman who not only tries to have her daughter killed, but wants to eat her heart and liver, and then goes directly to kill the girl herself, all because the girl is prettier than she is. In some versions of the story, she is given a fairly horrible punishment, and in others, she disappears and is never heard from again. Stage a mock trial for the stepmother. A challenge for older students would be to find out the legal names for the crimes she commits in the story, and determine what her punishment would be in the real world.
- Snow White is an amazingly passive girl. In most tellings of the story, she does nothing but run away and clean house. The one thing she is supposed to do is not to let anyone into the house, and yet the wicked stepmother is able to trick her three times in older versions of the story. When she is awakened from her coma by a kiss or by having the bit of apple dislodged from her throat, she marries the prince without further thought. Challenge students to rewrite the story in a way that has her showing more gumption.
- On the other hand, Snow White offers to cook and clean for the seven little men, in order to earn her keep. She doesn’t waste time worrying about what happened in the past, but sets out to make a new life for herself in her current circumstances. Her gullibility when the wicked stepmother comes around in disguise may just be the result of her kind heart. Make a Character Map for Snow White listing all the characteristics shown in the version or versions of the story you choose to read.
- Jealousy is the wicked stepmother’s motive for her cruelty to Snow White. Challenge students to write about a time when they felt jealousy, or have them brainstorm alternative behaviors that were available to the stepmother.
- The central fact about Snow White in the story is that she is beautiful. The wicked stepmother is enraged by her beauty, and Snow White suffers for it, even though there is no indication in the story that she was vain or competitive. Challenge older students to think and write about how people’s looks affect them and their relationships with other people.
- The huntsman and the seven little men face difficult choices. Should the huntsman endanger himself by letting Snow White go? Should he deceive the wicked stepmother? Is letting Snow White escape enough, when he knows that she is likely to be devoured by wild animals? Should the seven little men allow Snow White to stay with them, or try to find her a safer place? Are they endangering themselves by giving her sanctuary? Are they right to hand her over to the prince at the end, knowing that there have been several tricks played already to get to her and harm her? Have students work in groups to construct flow charts for the decision-making processes these characters might use.
- In addition to the various writing and reading assignments discussed above, “Snow White” is a great opportunity to practice comparatives and superlatives. Her skin is “as white as snow,” her hair “as black as night,” and she is “the fairest in the land.” Make a class list of all the comparatives and superlatives in the story — great for ESL!
- The famous couplet that the wicked stepmother recites to her mirror is “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall/Who is the fairest of them all?” What if the mirror had been hanging on a tree instead? Practice rhyming words by having the mirror hanging in all sorts of different places and challenging students to rewrite the couplet to fit the different locations.
- Walt Disney’s Seven Dwarfs had adjective names: Bashful, Sleepy, Grumpy, etc. This is not part of the traditional story. Have students choose seven new adjectives to name the little men.
- Disney said “dwarfs” and some would choose “dwarves” instead. This gives a good excuse to look at regular and irregular plurals.
- Here’s your chance to practice the 7s facts family! Ask younger students to tell you how many beds, chairs, spoons, forks, knives, and plates the little men in the forest would have had, at the minimum. For third grade, ask the number of chair legs! Do speed drills with 7s family math facts.