Back in August we had some discussion of fairy tales, their scariness, and what works for what ages. Over the past two days I finally picked up and read a book I thought I wasn't going to like at all, but which is really quite amazing and completely demonstrates the emotional depth and power of fairy tales, specifically Grimms'.
A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz, a teacher at St. Ann's School in your fair borough of Brooklyn, is a brilliant book, just published this fall. It's hard to describe because it sounds contrived and weird and gory, but it knits together the primal creepiness of fairy tales with very well realized and defined emotion. Gidwitz puts two characters named Hansel and Gretel into six (more or less) of the original Grimm tales, substituting them for the child characters in each story. He does it in such a way that they become one unified story, ending up with three chapters of his own original tales which bring the action full circle. In the first story, Faithful Johannes, a king and queen are guilt-ridden for having caused the death of their faithful servant because they didn't trust him. They are told they can bring him back to life by killing their own children (Hansel and Gretel), so the king cuts off their heads. After Johannes comes back to life, "he placed little Hansel's head back on his body, and little Gretel's head on hers, and instantly they began to leap and play as if nothing had happened, and as if they were not covered in blood."
Late that night, they lay in their beds, unable to sleep.And so they set off in search of good grown-ups -- and immediately find a baker in the forest with a house made of cake, launching us into the traditional H&G story. In other chapters there are scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, serial murder and various other forms of violence. At the end of almost every one, adults have at the least disappointed and often come very close to murdering the sister and brother. Sounds awful, right? But the gore and violence have a point: crudely put, it's whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. The children grow and learn more, and eventually end up back at the gates of their parents' castle. More murder and resurrection await -- and redemption and reconciliation in the end. Very satisfying.
"Hansel," Gretel said.
"Did you hear what Father said?"
"He cut off our heads to save that ugly old man."
Hansel was silent.
"And Mommy was glad that he did. Do you think they hate us?"
Hansel was silent still.
"I think we should run away," Gretel said. "In case they want to do it again."
"That's just was I was thinking," Hansel answered. "Just what I was thinking...."
Gidwitz uses a device throughout the book which, like much of the rest of this book, sounds like it shouldn't work, but it mostly does. He occasionally breaks into boldface type and turns and speaks directly to the reader. It feels a bit like Lemony Snicket at the beginning -- there's a lot of send-the-little-kids-out-of-the-room-it's-too-scary-for-them. But he also uses it to talk about the feelings of the stories. The asides give the reader a chance to catch one's breath and consider the larger themes.
As his website demonstrates, Gidwitz has thought a lot about fairy tales and uses of the imagination. He includes writings of Bruno Bettelheim, G.K. Chesterton and Seamus Heaney to talk about the creative process and the unconscious. His essays Tears into Blood and Why Do I Write Fairy Tales If They're So Bloody? explore how he sees children reacting to scary/violent stories.
When I say children here, I'm not talking about pre-schoolers. The publisher calls it a book for children ten and older, which seems about right to me. And Gidwitz is quite clear that there are some kids who will never want to read it. He's not setting out to traumatize readers, but to engage those who want to be engaged in some pretty intense feelings. And he really does it well.