|A Tale Dark and Grimm
by Adam Gidwitz
by Andy Mulligan
David Fickling/Random House
Two tales, dark and grim: one, a retelling of the Brothers Grimm’s “brother and sister” stories, the other a thriller sent in shameful, hellacious underbelly of a third world city.
I felt a little uncomfortable stepping into these books. Okay, I’ll admit it—I like happy books that make me glad I am who I am. Murderous parents, child-eating witches, orphaned trash pickers, and monstrously corrupt politicians do not make me feel good about being human. But that’s because I’m a grownup, all tender and vulnerable and fiercely protective of my comfort level. Younger readers are more adventurous. As was I, once upon a time. Clearly, to give these books a fair shake I would have to channel my younger self.
In A Tale Dark and Grimm, Adam Gidwitz makes it easy. These fairly straightforward retellings are interrupted, frequently, by the author, who offers warnings (“This next bit is a bit gross,”) commentary (“No, I didn’t think the moon ate people either. But is says so, right in the original Grimm,”) and alternate endings to several of the tales. There is a forbidden fruit deliciousness here—like being a kid and having your most favorite and funniest uncle telling you stories that might make your overly-protective helicopter parents blanch.
The retelling of classic children’s stories has become a subgenre all its own, from Twain’s reimagined “Camelot” (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) to Gregory Maguire’s inside-out version of The Wizard of Oz (Wicked) to William Goldman’s meta-take of the subgenre, The Princess Bride. As an author, every time I see the publication of a new retelling, my first reaction is, “Oy,” with an exaggerated eye- roll. My second reaction is, often, “Hey! How come I didn’t I think of that?”
I was surprised and impressed by how closely Gidwitz hewed to the original tales while managing to make them feel fresh and new. But as much as I enjoyed reading A Tale Dark and Grimm, the best part of all was the part where I dug out my long-unopened copy of the Grimms’ Tales for Young and Old and sat reading the two side by side. This is a book that will inspire many readers—young and old—to take a look at the originals.
The title of Andy Mulligan’s YA novel Trash is appropriate, multi-layered, and catchy— but it could as easily have been titled “A Tale Dark and Grim.” Although there are fewer brutal deaths, amputations, and maimings than in the Gidwitz book, Trash comes across as darker and grimmer—perhaps because the world and the events it describes are all too real. This is no fairy tale.
Set in an unnamed country, Trash is the story of three young trash pickers—boys who support themselves by gleaning what they can from the mountains of refuse discarded by a sprawling, highly stratified, unnamed city. The story, told from several points of view, is a sort of mystery/thriller/adventure: the boys find a mysterious bag containing a key, a map, and a small sum of money. While the police search desperately for the bag, the boys attempt to unravel the mystery.
The flap copy describes the story as taking place in the “not-so-distant future,” but there is really nothing in the setting that can’t be found somewhere on the planet at this moment. This is no futuristic dystopia, it’s a dys-right-here-right-now-topia. Any adult reading it cannot help but think, How can people live like this? What can I do?
But what makes Trash compelling is not the call for social justice. It’s the world-building, the horrifyingly fascinating crashing together of social and economic classes, and the weirdly promising stew of ground-in fatalism and callow optimism that sustains the three main characters. Although brutal in its details, Trash is about hope, justice, and the fragile yet resilient human spirit.
Is one of these books better? Well, A Tale Dark and Grimm is the more polished of the two. Adam Gidwitz succeeds in doing exactly what he set out to do—the writing is hi-def, spare, and effortlessly readable. Trash, though less elegantly composed, struck me as more raw, powerful, and immediate. In other words, reading A Tale Dark and Grimm was the more agreeable experience, but Trash was the one that cut deeper.
Which book would I have liked better at age 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15…? Well, Trash would have stuck with me, I think. Maybe inspired me to, you know, change the world. Is that a good thing? I do not know. But this round goes to Trash.
– Pete Hautman
And the Winner of this match is…
Both A Tale Dark and Grimm and Trash have very dark subject matter. The difference lies in their respective treatments: A Tale Dark and Grimm treats its subject with a sly wink and a mischievous nod, while Trash opts for a more serious tone. I agree with just about everything Pete has written here. Gidwitz does put an original spin on classic tales, inviting readers to investigate them; Mulligan’s themes of social justice dovetail perfectly with his suspenseful storytelling. To my mind, however, the winner of this match is a bit of a moot point because I am picking The Ring of Solomon to advance to the finals, but both of these debut novels kind of got lost in the shuffle at the end of the year, and I’m not only happy to see them get their just due here, but I’m also very much looking forward to further books by Gidwitz and Mulligan.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt