The 9 Most Popular Fairy Tale Stories of All Time
From rags to riches and beasts to beanstalks, these are the fairy tale stories that shape our happily ever afters.
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Once upon a time
Fairy tale stories are part and parcel of childhood. Endlessly retellable (and spoofable—we’re looking at you, Shrek) and filled with sometimes-questionable life lessons, fairy tale stories for kids have evolved through the years thanks to children’s books, movies, and, in no small part, Disney characters. Here are some of the most popular fairy tales for kids that have captured the hearts of children and adults alike. You’re probably familiar with them, but there’s plenty you may not know about their origins and evolution. And if you can’t get enough of magic and fantastical lands, you’ll want to get your hands on the best fantasy books of all time.
Once there was a hardworking girl with a wicked stepmother and a heart of gold. She got a makeover from a fairy godmother, scored a dance with a prince, and snagged a happily ever after in a pretty sweet castle. This story crossed the globe for thousands of years, winning hearts wherever it went. Although the most familiar version of “Cinderella” was recorded by 17th-century French writer Charles Perrault, the well-respected scholarly website Sur La Lune Fairy Tales estimates there may be as many as 1,500 traditional variants of the tale around the world. Those include “The Girl with the Rose Red Slippers” from ancient Egypt and a ninth-century Chinese version. The story has inspired countless modern retellings, including Walt Disney’s iconic 1950 cartoon, the blockbuster film Pretty Woman, the novel and movie Ella Enchanted, and too many others to name. See which Cinderella quote made our list of favorite Disney movie quotes.
Beauty and the Beast
When kind and virtuous Beauty falls in love with the beast despite his outward appearance, he’s transformed into a handsome prince. Who among us has not felt unworthy of a lover yet longed to have our inner value recognized? Who has not dreamed of romantic love with the power to redeem and transform? No wonder “Beauty and the Beast,” originally a French story, is the second most frequently visited fairy tale for kids on Sur La Lune Fairy Tales. Of all the many retellings, our favorite is probably French director Jean Cocteau’s surreal 1945 film version, La Belle et la Bête, but the Disney version is certainly the most prevalent (and lucrative). So far, Beauty and the Beast has rung the company’s cash register as a cartoon, a Broadway musical, a soundtrack album, and most recently, a live-action film starring Emma Watson.
Little Red Riding Hood
In this fairy tale for kids—probably intended as a warning to follow directions—Red sets off alone to visit her grandmother with instructions not to step off the forest path. The rebellious Red promptly disregards this advice, attracting the attention of a talking wolf who sets out to eat and impersonate Grandma. What happens next depends on which version you read. In the 17th-century French version recorded by Charles Perrault, Red gets gobbled up by the wolf. The End. In other tellings, across Europe, North America, China, Japan, and Ghana, she’s saved at the last minute by a guy with an axe or the wolf chokes on her hood or he eats both Grandma and Red but is forced to vomit them up unharmed. Of the many recent retellings on page and on-screen, our favorite is the animated film Hoodwinked! with Anne Hathaway voicing a wonderfully sassy Red.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first animated full-length Disney film, setting the pattern for all those to come. According to Film Site, the movie “took almost four years and an astronomical (at the time) $1.7 million to create” and was also the first film soundtrack ever to be released separately as an album. Despite still being low-key terrifying, Disney’s version did spare its evil queen her original Grimm fairy tale punishment of being forced to dance to her death in red-hot shoes.
Despite ample criticism of the less-than-active main character—as feminist critics have put it, she is “an object to be displayed and desired … patriarchy’s ideal woman, the perfect candidate for queen”—Snow White remains a massively popular tale. Modern retellings, like Snow White and the Huntsman; Mirror, Mirror; Once Upon a Time; and more have provided much-needed updates to the character. As for fairy tale books, we like Snow White, a graphic novel retelling set in 1930s New York City. If you’re looking for more great reads, check out our picks for the best short books.
Jack and the Beanstalk
Young Jack trades the family’s only cow for a handful of magic beans. When a giant beanstalk sprouts overnight, Jack seizes the chance to climb to a giant’s castle and steal all of his magical possessions. The story we know is from England, and Jack himself is English. (Need proof? Consider the famous line “fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.”) But as Sur La Lune Fairy Tales points out, there are fairy tale stories based on this tale found among Europeans, Scandinavians, and Indigenous groups across Canada. And don’t forget Asia’s tale of the branch of the Bodhi of Buddha, which quickly grows skyward once planted.
As for modern adaptations, Jack (along with some of these other fairy tale characters) has a major role in the musical and movie Into the Woods and has had his story told through the live-action films Jack and the Beanstalk (2010) and Jack the Giant Slayer (2013). But unlike other fairy tale stories that have been told and retold (and retold again), this one still poses an exciting action-adventure opportunity for filmmakers.
If you found Snow White annoyingly passive, meet Sleeping Beauty, whose main claim to fame is, obviously, her century-long snooze. According to Sur La Lune Fairy Tales, this fairy tale for kids dates to the “Volsunga Saga” from 13th-century Iceland but is found all across Europe, especially France, Italy, and Germany. It even appears in The Arabian Nights. In 1890, Russian composer Tchaikovsky wrote the musical score for a much-loved Sleeping Beauty ballet, and years later, the folks at Disney borrowed some of his music for their 1959 animated film version. Here’s a piece of Disney trivia you probably don’t know: Sleeping Beauty originally underwhelmed at the box office, and Disney achieved much greater success with 2014’s Maleficent, which retold Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the vengeful fairy.
Puss in Boots
Plenty of fairy tale stories have animal helpers, but in this one, the animal is the star. Puss is a bold, swaggering trickster who masquerades as the servant of a great nobleman. The story was probably first recorded in 16th-century Italy, but Puss seems to have acquired his swashbuckling boots about 100 years later in France, in the same book of stories that features Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast, and he’s been rocking them ever since. In an age when the poor mostly went barefoot, shoes were an important status symbol, and clearly those boots were made for walking because Puss has managed to travel astonishingly far around the world. Scholars say the story “has been found in all parts of Europe, across Siberia, [and] onward to India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.”
More recently, the irrepressible Puss found new fans and stole the show in 2001’s Shrek movies. Voiced by Antonio Banderas, his signature introduction—”Puss…in Boots”—became instantly recognizable. The character was so beloved that he got his own spinoff movie, the 2012 flick Puss in Boots. If you have young kids, pick up one of the fiction books based on the lovable feline.
Hansel and Gretel
In a time of famine, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in a great forest by their wicked stepmother. Unable to resist eating pieces of a real gingerbread cottage, the hungry children are captured by the cannibal witch who lives there; in the end, they must shove her into her own fiery oven to escape. This narrative about the dangers of unwholesome appetite and children’s drive for survival is one of the most frequently visited fairy tales stories on Sur La Lune Fairy Tales—even without any publicity from Disney. Some scholars believe that the Great Famine of 14th-century Europe inspired the familiar German version of “Hansel and Gretel,” recorded by the famous Brothers Grimm some 500 years later. Regardless, this gruesome story is one of the most widely told around the world; variants include “The Story of the Bird That Made Milk” in southern Africa, the southern Indian tale “Kadar and the Cannibals,” and the Russian folk tales of Baba Yaga.
Whether from Disney’s 2010 hit Tangled or 2002’s Barbie as Rapunzel from Mattel, you know the story: The girl with the climbable curls is isolated in a tower by a wicked witch. But as many fairy tale stories go, a handsome prince soon arrives to save the day. The original Grimm version of Rapunzel is grimmer (naturally) than the banter-filled cartoon movie (though fans of Into the Woods will be familiar with it): Rapunzel winds up in the witch’s clutches in the first place because her pregnant mother couldn’t stop stealing magic herbs from the old crone’s garden. Later, using Rapunzel’s hair as a lure, the witch catches the prince and throws him to the ground, where thorns pierce his eyes. She leaves him to wander alone for years in the wilderness. But it is a fairy tale, so eventually, Rapunzel runs into him by chance; her tears fall onto his face, miraculously restoring his vision and leading the couple to their belated happily ever after.
- Sur La Lune Fairy Tales: “Cinderella”
- Sur La Lune Fairy Tales: “Beauty and the Beast”
- Sur La Lune Fairy Tales: “Red Riding Hood”
- Scholastic: “Lon Po Po: A Chinese Fairy Tale Lesson Plan”
- Kid World Citizen: “Little Red Riding Hood: 3 Multicultural Versions”
- Filmsite: “Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)”
- Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar: “The Madwoman in the Attic”
- Sur La Lune Fairy Tales: “Sleeping Beauty”
- Oh My Disney: “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Sleeping Beauty“
- Sur La Lune Fairy Tales: “Puss in Boots”
- Sur La Lune Fairy Tales: “Hansel and Gretel”
- Pook Press: “Hansel and Gretel”
- Sacred Texts: “Story of the Bird That Made Milk”