The Oddities of Disney’s ‘Wonderful World of Reading’

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Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

When my daughter was born, I unboxed every children’s book I had. Around a hundred books were in the collection, and about 30 were from Disney. Some were retellings of classic fairy tales or folk legends, while others were based on films and shorts. While looking through them, I noticed several oddities.

Photo Credit: Mike PhalinThe older books in my collection are from Disney’s Wonderful World of Reading. These books, published by Random House here in the US, originated in Denmark in the early 1970s. When you see the artwork in some of the books, there’s a bit of a Nordic vibe going on. I scoured each DWWR book, but the artists are never credited. Whoever illustrated some of these stories took some unusual liberties.

Let’s see how the Danish books look today.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

Um. Pinocchio is a bit sassy here. His eyes are also a bit … interesting. The story is not a direct adaptation of the Disney classic or Carlo Collodi’s series of adventures. It boils down to the little wooden boy getting captured by Stromboli and freed by Geppetto. Lampwick and Honest John make appearances, but it’s far from an epic tale. The most notable thing is the image above.

A more direct adaptation is that of Disney’s The Hare and the Tortoise. This book is based on the Silly Symphony with a similar name. The overall story is the same, but there’s a change in the narrative that is also present on the front cover. Can you see what it is?

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin
Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

Here’s a big difference, Max the hare is no longer stopping for three young female bunnies. Instead, he loses the race because he’s busy trying to impress two female bunnies and one male bunny. Look at that! Inclusion and diversity! Not bad for a book made in 1981. However, this doesn’t answer the question as to why Max would be so interested in showing off to children.

Uh, oh. We’ve got to tread carefully. We’ll look at Brer Rabbit before he was sterilized for Splash Mountain. In 1982, The Song of the South wasn’t looked on as poorly as today. Let’s see if this book is going to be an issue.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin
Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

Who the hell is Brer Wolf?! Did those crazy Danes come up with a new character just for the story? I like that he looks like an off-brand Disney character. Besides this new addition to the cast, the entire story is just Brer Rabbit getting away from the three predators. No tar, no Uncle Remus, and nothing notable.

From an illustration perspective, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the most intriguing book in this collection. The story follows Walt’s first cinematic animated film, more or less, but it’s the art style that raises the eyebrows.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

I absolutely love the way Queen Grimhilde is drawn in this book. Throughout the story, she’s shown almost exclusively in profile. The all-red outfit makes her even more stunning. The Magic Mirror was gaslighting the Queen because she’s more beautiful here than Snow White.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin
Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

Good lord! The Danes did no favors to the “fairest one in the land” here. Most depictions of the character are offputting. It’s the eyes that make it creepy. I understand what the illustrator was going for, but geez.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

The Princess was more hands-on when cleaning the home she had just broken into in this version of the story. I find the depiction of Snow White donning a dew rag and performing domestic duties hilarious.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

The story unfolds as you would expect, with the Queen disguising herself as the old hag and poisoning Snow White. However, the Queen’s demise is humorous. Rather than being struck down by the wrath of God (you know that’s what happened), she is chased off a ledge by the dwarfs. Seriously. Her death was due to her not looking where she was going. At least it’s not as cruel as what happens to the Queen in the original fairy tale…

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

The book’s final page contains what is possibly the most handsome prince of all. Look at that guy! He’s tan. He’s blonde. He has the most chiseled face I’ve ever seen! The eyes! I don’t get what the artists in Denmark were up to with the eyes, but wow.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

Oh, crap. We’re in trouble now. Nope. I have nothing to say about Hiawatha’s Bear Hunt. Nothing at all. I have zero opinions on any cultural sensitivities or generalizations made by the Danes who illustrated this book. I ain’t saying nuffin’.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

OK, the artwork is lovely compared to the weirdness found in other DWWR books. The terminology used may be dated and ignorant, but nowhere in this story does it come off as insulting as we saw in 1953’s Peter Pan. The tale of Hiawatha here does contain a good message for kids, but it would also need to be followed up with an explanation as to why Native Americans were depicted this way in the 1900s.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

Breaking from the Wonderful World of Reading, I wanted to look at this little curiosity. This Golden Book of Alice in Wonderland contains a character who never made an appearance in the 1951 version.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.

The Jabberwock was to make an appearance in Disney’s film but was ultimately cut. From what I can tell, this section of the film was, indeed, animated as production cels from the scene have popped up online.

Photo Credit: Mike Phalin

The Jabberwock is an interesting piece of lost Disney history. Unfortunately, the whole animated sequence isn’t available, at least not to the public. The song that accompanied him is, though. Check out the videos below.

What do you think of Disney’s long discontinued Danish book series? Let us know below.


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