Rocky: A Cinderella Story

This is a bonus episode of the Children’s Literature Podcast, inspired by a challenge from listener Pedro, who wrote in to say “In the Cinderella show you said Rocky is a Cinderella story. I don’t buy it. Change my mind.” A few months ago in my episode called “What is a Cinderella Story” I gave examples of tales that fit the basic pattern of a Cinderella tale. Sometimes you find them in unexpected places, such as the 1976 film Rocky. That’s not a book for children, but I love Rocky films so much that I will take any excuse I can to talk about them. So congratulations, Pedro. You baited me.

Fairy tales aren’t just for kids — we grownups need them too. So let’s revisit the characteristics of a Cinderella story as found in the tale of a drudge from the streets of Philly who gets one chance to dance with a handsome prince and seizes his destiny.

Let me know if I’ve changed your mind, Pedro!

How the Brothers Grimm Saved Folk Culture

Everyone has heard of the Brothers Grimm but usually the only fact people know about these men is that they were the authors of a book of fairy tales. And even this is only partly true. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected folk tales, and then they edited them into Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or Children’s and Household Tales, which became the heart of the fairy tale canon.

The Brothers Grimm were dedicated to preserving folklore at a time when war, economic change, and the loss of large, multigenerational families were destroying folk traditions. It would be nice to say that dictators with imperial ambitions no longer posed a threat to the unique cultures of smaller neighbors, but unfortunately the plight of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is alarmingly relevant given the present-day war in Ukraine.

Activity: Collect and Preserve Folktales

Within your family, school, or community, have children think of sources for local legends and stories. Are there famous local sites? Notable citizens from the past? Family bedtime stories or songs? Have children record these bits of folklore. Then, decide who will edit and arrange the works. Consider which items have most value to preserving the folk memories of your family and community. Once the stories are assembled, share them in a way that gives free access to as many people as possible and encourages others to make new creative works based on this folklore.

I have written down and recorded a folktale from my own family. It’s called “Ricky the Racer” and was made up by my grandfather back in the 1950’s. This story has now been in my family for four generations as I am now telling it to my own children. You can listen to “Ricky the Racer” and learn the folk history of this tale here.

What is a Cinderella Story?

Cinderella stories are the oldest in the world, and are found in every culture. In the first episode in a series, learn about the basic structure of Cinderella stores, why they are mostly about young women, and how to write your own Cinderella story.

Activity: Write Your Own Cinderella Story

In this activity, students will write their own Cinderella story. Students should first read or listen to “Cendrillon” as told by Charles Perrault, as this is the most commonly known version of the Cinderella story today. Links to text and audio of the stories is below:

“Cendrillon” by Charles Perrault (Abridged)

“Cendrillon, or the Little Glass Slipper” by Charles Perrault (Full Version)

If there is time, have students also study the version by the Brothers Grimm:

“Aschenputtel” as collected by the Brothers Grimm (Abridged)

“Aschenputtel” as collected by the Brothers Grimm (Full Version)

After reading or hearing the story, ask students to outline the major plot points of a Cinderella story. This can be done as a class, in small groups, or individually, and should roughly include the following:

    • Cinderella is socially, economically, and physically trapped
    • The cruel Stepmother is the main antagonist who uses her power to abuse Cinderella, and she encourages the Stepsisters to also be cruel to her
    • A special event offers Cinderella one chance to be noticed and appreciated, but it seems unlikely that she will be able to make it
    • A Fairy Godmother gives Cinderella the help she needs to get to the event, although the transformation is only temporary
    • Now that Cinderella is able to be part of society, her  good qualities impress everyone, including the most important person there
    • Cinderella must flee the event to avoid being discovered, but leaves behind a clue as to her identity
    • The important person seeks out Cinderella using the clue and finds her
    • Cinderella is rescued and will now live a safe and happy life away from her abusers
    • The stepmother and stepsisters are punished or forgiven

Stories do not need to exactly follow this pattern, and there can be many interpretations of what counts as an “Evil Stepmother,” “Ugly Stepsister,” or “Fairy Godmother.” Stories can be magical or realistic in nature, and the “Prince” character does not automatically have to be a romantic partner for Cinderella.

Provide each student a copy of the following worksheet, which will help in planning a new Cinderella-type story:

PDF: Cinderella Story Worksheet

Students can work alone, in small groups, or as a large group to outline with a new twist on Cinderella. Encourage students to consider an unusual historical or fictional setting, such as science fiction or a location in the world far away in time and place from medieval Europe. Some students may wish to set their story within the world of a novel or a video game that they like, using characters that they are already familiar with.

After planning stories using the worksheet, students can then write their Cinderella story. Stories can be shared with fellow students and then collected into a volume, to be placed in a family or school library.