Didn’t want to read this. Nope. Not a jot. Three reasons for that. First off, the title. I’ve said it about twenty times since reading it and every time I can’t quite get it right (derivations have included “Something Dark and Grimm”, “A Grimm Tale”, and “Something Grimm”). Second, the jacket of the hardcover edition of this book isn’t particularly new. Silhouettes against a blue background. Ho hum. Third, I couldn’t believe that I was dealing with yet ANOTHER middle grade novel adapting fairy tales in new ways. After a while the The Sisters Grimm / The Grimm Legacy titles out there begin to meld together. From The Goose Girl to Into the Wild to Sisters Red I sometimes feel as if I am a little tired of fairy tales. I guess it takes a book like A Tale Dark and Grimm to wake me out of this funk. To my surprise, Gidwitz’s debut is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. I’ve never seen a book meld the snarky narrator of something like a Lemony Snicket title so seamlessly with the original tone and telling of the original Grimm fairy tales. And not the sweet tales either. This is a book that isn’t afraid to get to the root of a good story. The fact that it unearths some of the more frightening ones along the way just happens to be a bonus.
We all know some of the better known Grimm fairy tales out there like “Rapunzel” or “Cinderella”. Heck, we probably even know some of their original story elements (chopping of heels and toes, getting blinded by thorns, etc.). The Grimm tales were just that. Grim. Now imagine finding yourself living them. Prince Hansel and Princess Gretel are born in one lesser known Grimm fairy tales, “Faithful Johannes” and when they discover that their mom and dad are potentially unhinged they set off to make their way in the world and find some decent parents. In doing so they wander through a series of little known tales like “The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs” and “The Seven Ravens”. Unfortunately, while doing so they have a tendency to lose digits, lose their humanity, lose their lives (almost), and find that sometimes the fastest way to end your travels to go back to where you started.
There are times in a children’s librarian’s life when it is very useful to own the third edition of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm as translated by Jack Zipes (who, by the way, blurbed this book). You just never know when you might need such a book. In this particular case I decided to inspect the stories Gidwitz appropriated to see exactly how closely they adhered to the originals. I was not disappointed. “Faithful Johannes”? Dead on, including the whole kidnapping the mom bit. “The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs”? At points, nearly word for word. He’s often faithful, but sometimes I wondered if Gidwitz was calling upon versions of tales even older than the Grimm’s. The fact that the witch in the story “Hansel and Gretel” isn’t a witch at all but a baker feels like an earlier version of the story. I began to wish that Gidwitz would mention what his sources were when writing this tale. Because even if the baker idea was his own, it feels incredibly authentic.
Gidwitz, I should note, may seem to be adapting the Grimm tales in all their full gore, but he does make a couple alterations here and there. There are the obvious changes that have to be there for one tale to meld into another. The seven ravens are changed to the seven swallows since there are already three ravens of vast importance in this book, and any more would get confusing. And then there are the original elements that still aren’t quite appropriate for a middle grade novel. For example, in A Tale Dark and Grimm Johannes is instructed to bite the queen’s lip. In the original story, it’s her right breast. Ew. A good change then.
I was most intrigued when Gidwitz was at his most original. The story “Brother and Sister” seemingly has little to do with the original tale except that a boy and a girl are living on their own in a forest and the brother is turned into a wild beast. The story “A Smile As Red As Blood” seems closest to “The Robber Bridegroom”, complete with the telltale finger. It might be mixed with another story as well, though. The detail about killing warlocks by boiling them in oil with poisonous snakes felt a little too authentic. After reading for a while, you begin to find you cannot separate Gidwitz’s writing from that of the Grimms. At the beginning of the book they are distinct and separate. The Grimms are almost word for word and Gidwitz just throws in a little snarky commentary. Then as the book progresses, more and more of Gidwitz seeps in so that by the end it’s impossible to say what is and isn’t authentic Grimm. Gidwitz’s technique will probably encourage kids to locate their own original Grimm tales. I recommend they lay their hands on Grimm’s Grimmest complete with beautifully bloody illustrations by Tracy Dockray (best known for recently re-illustrating the Ramona books).
As for the violence, you can’t say Gidwitz doesn’t warn you. Indeed, before every gross, disgusting, or horrific passage (all authentically Grimm) he is careful to tell the reader things like, “Warning: this next bit is kind of gross” and “No little children around, right?” These stories have been around since long before the Grimms collected them during the early 19th century. Kids loved ‘em in the past and from what I hear, kids today just eat this newest book up as well. The gore doesn’t get to them. It’s the parents who can’t take it. For a certain kind of child, this book will be the answer to their painless, bloodless, suburban lives. They’ll get sucked into this book early on and keep reading and reading until before they know it they’ve just finished a story with great writing and a bold theme. And when you talk it up to them you need only say one thing: “This book makes Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark look like pat-a-cake nursery rhymes.”
One does wonder if the narrator in this book isn’t a bit on the nose too often, though. The idea is to show not tell, but Gidwitz indulges in a fair amount of telling. His narrator is prone to saying things like, “Parents are supposed to help their children to grow wise and healthy and strong,” and “… Once Upon a Time, no grown-up was perfect. You, my dear reader, have certainly learned that by now.” He’s more than intrusive. He’s telling you the point of some of these tales, and adding observations of his own along the way. Some folks will be driven batty by this technique. Yet for me, the technique was so obvious from the start that I accepted it. I didn’t mind being told what one thing might mean or another. When you’re dealing with tales as upfront and brassy as the Grimm tales, a little contemporary commentary is more than welcome. This is a book for kids, after all.
Like a lot of middle grade novels out this year (Cosmic, One Crazy Summer, etc.), A Tale Dark and Grimm is about parents and parenting. Says the narrator at one point, “It will happen to you, Dear Reader, at some point in your life. You will face a moment very much like the one Hansel and Gretel are facing right now. In this moment, you will look at your parents and realize that – no matter what it sounds like they are saying – they are actually asking you for forgiveness.” What is forgiveness, for that matter? How do you forgive people when they’ve done terrible things to you? Is there a point where you can let go, and is there harm in holding on to your anger? And how on earth do you take seven or more incredibly violent Grimm fairy tales and turn them into a meaningful story about finding home, finding yourself, and finding what it means to be forgiving? That Gidwitz attempted it in the first place is bizarre. That he succeeds is baffling. The good kind of baffling. With enough blood and guts to satisfy even the most craven of readers, this is the rare horror tale for kids that also happens to have a lot of literary merit as well. The combination crops up in young adult literature all the time, but not so much on the kid side of things. Such books are rarities. This book, a gem. A new idea for some very old literature.
On shelves November 11th.
Source: Galley sent for review from publisher.
Notes on the Cover: When I first saw this cover I was not a particular fan. It just seemed to me to be yet another silhouette jacket, and not even as complex and interesting as those by David Frankland. But then I read this blog post by artist Hugh D’Andrade and my opinion started to shift. Looking at his preliminary sketches for the cover I was reminded of this book from back in the day:
The silhouette technique actually should remind me more of Hans Christian Andersen, since that man was a wizard with a pair of scissors (true) but it works for the Grimms too. So while it’s still not my favorite cover of the year, I do understand the silhouette/Grimm tie-in. I wonder if it looks pick-up-able to kids.