Once upon a time it happened, when indeed did it not happen, a teacher telling a fairy tale to a class at school was deeply touched by the power of the story. She saw it in the eyes of the children, and she felt it in her own heart. That experience awakened her interest in fairy tales from around the world and the joy of retelling them to modern children. That awakening for one teacher led to the publication of a new book, released in spring 2021.
Leni Covington grew up in Massilion, Ohio, and she remembers, “I was always going to be a teacher.” Fate led her to expand her studies, and she emerged from her college years having studied both sociology and anthropology at Kent State University. She later returned to school to study learning disabilities, earning a masters in education degree from the University of Virginia.
In 1984 she joined the faculty at the newly founded Crossroads Waldorf School in Batesville, Virginia and, teaching in a Waldorf school, she began her educational exploration of fairy tales.
Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian master teacher who in the early twentieth century inspired Waldorf education, understood that deep human soul communications come to us in fairy tales, tales that people told to one another long before written history began. Through the years, Waldorf teachers have told fairy tales to children of preschool age and older, employing fairy tales as a vehicle for academic learning.
“Because fairy tales belong to our innermost feeling and emotional life and to everything connected with it, they are of all forms of literature the most appropriate for children’s hearts and minds.” — Rudolf Steiner, Lecture Feb 1913 “The Poetry of Fairy Tales”
In Waldorf classrooms around the world, fairy tales are told and retold, written out and illustrated by teachers and by their students who begin their scholastic journey to literacy in first grade with the study of reading, writing and arithmetic all wrapped in the security of the old and soul-nurturing stories. In early childhood programs at Waldorf schools fairy tales are often presented as puppet plays by teachers who maintain a simple and artistic, reverential mood in the telling, letting the story speak profoundly for itself.
Ludwig Laistner (1848 — 1896), a German author and collector of fairy tales, put it in these words:
“The fairy tale is like a good angel, given us at birth to go with us from our home to our earthly path through life, to be our trusted comrade throughout the journey and to give us angelic companionship, so that our life itself can become a truly heart-and soul-enlivened fairy tale!”
Leni Covington taught children in preschool and grades one through five in various educational settings in California and in Charlottesville, Virginia, and she founded two preschool programs and produced puppet plays as part of that work.
Wanting to broaden her sharing of the stories she told in puppet plays, she posted some of her work on youtube, and the videos show a lovely example of the simple and powerful storytelling techniques practiced in Waldorf schools around the world.
As she told fairy tales to children, Leni Covington began developing a particular fondness for one tale in the Brothers Grimm collection, The Shoemaker and the Elves. The story tells of a shoemaker come upon hard times who receives the help of industrious elves who support his own industry to carry him with his wife to a place of steady income and wealth. The shoemaker thanks his magical helpers with his own gifts to them, and the story shines with the light of good deeds and good will.
“The reason I wanted to write this book,” Leni Covington said of her retelling of the Shoemaker and the Elves, “was that it offered such good material for teaching resilience, courage, perseverance and joyfulness. The project hatched in my brain thirty years ago.”
Along the way, she shared her idea with Taylor B. Randolph, a friend skilled and experienced in the art of illustration, and the two of them began to imagine the book.
“Taylor and I have been working on this book for six years,” Leni told me. “We were friends, and I said, let’s do a project.”
As the book began to take shape, Leni expanded her activities to include exploration of the publishing world.
“I spent two years sending letters to publishing companies, and no one even answered,” she said. She finally contacted a published Waldorf colleague whose wife gave her the name of a publishing coach.
“That was in August, and the book was finally in print in April,” Leni said. She worked with a publishing coach, a book designer and a copy editor and finally released the book from her own publishing house, Kenyon Avenue Press. Her interest in world cultures led her to publish a Spanish language version, translated by Oscar Miranda Quintin, a California colleague, and she is planning a release in Mandarin, as well.
Because teaching school consumed the hours she could be writing, Leni Covington finally retired from teaching and moved to a cottage on a lake in Virginia. Six years ago, she followed her children to Durham, North Carolina. “I realized,” she said, “that what I wanted to do when I retired was be a grandmother.”
Fairy tales, however, continued to inform her creative activities.
She has other projects incubating, including readers for young children, and she continues her search of world literature for fairy tales to rewrite and publish.
“I look for stories,” she said, “that illustrate the qualities I want to support in children, and also I ask, ‘does it speak to me?’”
“Everyone of us can feel reverberating in us how something we don’t even bring to consciousness is connected with the effect of the fairy tale on our soul like the taste of food on our tongue. And then the fairy tale becomes for the soul very much like nutritious food when it is put to use by the whole organism.” –Rudolf Steiner
The Shoemaker and the Elves, released by Kenyon Avenue Press, can be purchased in the LTA SHOP or ordered directly from the publisher.