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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

A Tale Dark and Grimm

“Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.”

So begins the delightfully intrusive narrator of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM.  I actually wish the narrator intruded even more as I not only greatly enjoyed those bits, but also the contrast between the story narration.  Since we’re discussing the arch and instrusive narrator of THE KNEEBONE BOY right now, perhaps a comparison is in order.  Does this one work better for you?

Featuring the story of Hansel and Gretel, Gidwitz allows his characters to appear in several fairy tales by slightly tweaking them.  Ultimately, this distorted amalgamation of fairy tales morphs into a completely new concoction.  It reminds me slightly of the structure of THE GRAVEYARD BOOK which begins as a book of related short stories and morphs into a novel two thirds of the way in; something similar happens here.

Also, the premise of fractured fairy tales strung together also recalls some good picture books, namely THE THREE LITTLE PIGS, but also THERE’S A WOLF AT THE DOOR and THERE’S A PRINCESS IN THE PALACE.  And then there’s Paul Fleischman’s play, ZAP, with seven different play genres being constantly switched via remote control by an unseen spectator.  I mention these not to downplay the originality and creativity of this premise, but rather to say if you like A TALE DARK AND GRIMM then give those a look, too.

Is it scary?  I dunno.  The narrator kept promising scary, but I’m not sure he delivered.  But maybe scary, like funny, is very subjective.  And maybe once you read about Iorek Byrnison ripping out Iofur Raknison’s heart and eating it . . . well, nothing compares, does it?  Maybe it’s scary for younger readers.  I don’t think it’s a book specifically for 2nd or 3rd graders, but perhaps it’s more finely tuned to that age group than the other middle grade contenders we’ve been discussing here, namely THE DREAMER, COUNTDOWN, KEEPER, and ONE CRAZY SUMMER.

I’m not a big fairy tale expert, but I have read Hansel and Gretel and the Seven Ravens (although I’d be hard pressed to, um, like, take an AR quiz on the latter one).  Having a knowledge of the fairy tales greatly enhances the experience of reading the novel.  No doubt about it.  The question is this: Does the book exclude those readers without that knowledge?  No doubt about that, either.  Thus, this book is actually very germane to our sequel debate.  It’s a standalone, but it uses literary allusions in such a way that readers know they are not on equal footing with other readers and are left wondering if they are missing something.  Does that bother me?  Nope.  What bothers me is if you want to claim it’s an issue in, say, A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS, but not a problem here.  We can’t have that sort of hypocrisy.

So I’m intrigued by this one.  It’s not a top three book for me, but I do like it, perhaps enough to be talked into nominating it, and in the right circumstance, perhaps even voting for it.  What do you think?

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. As you know already, I”m a BIG fan of this book. I had been reading it aloud to my 4th graders and yesterday the author was at our school to meet elsewhere and came and finished reading it aloud himself. Pretty amazing experience, I’d say. Now I’ve already written about this book on my blog and probably will again for the HuffPo audience, but for now let me respond to some of your comments above.

    First of all, I do not think you need any background in the tales to enjoy the book. My 4th graders certainly only knew (vaguely) the Hansel and Gretel story. They were curious as to what stories were actually Grimm and which were the author’s, but not that much.

    On the subject of scary —there are some pretty scary moments for 4th graders. Roxanne’s reading it aloud to them in her library classes and evidently there are a few who have left the room (at both hers and the narrator’s suggestion) at moments. I have one child who found some of the gorier parts difficult to take, but he stuck it out nonetheless!

    Regarding the narrator, reading it aloud I found that he was spot-on. Just as my students wanted to ask something he answered. It really felt like an authentic storyteller. And seeing that storyteller in action yesterday was very cool indeed.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, you know I am playing devil’s advocate on this point, but . . . I really did feel out of sorts because I did not know the original fairy tales (which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it because obviously I did, too). I felt like since I didn’t know the original stories, I couldn’t fully appreciate how cleverly Gidwitz had retold them; I felt that perhaps I was missing jokes or motifs or things. So I did feel slightly disgruntled because I thought that somebody was having a better reading experience than me (and they were!) and it wasn’t my fault. And isn’t that really how we feel about the whole sequel thing?

    I think scary is so subjective. Nothing in the book would have scared me at that age, but I can see that many others will feel differently. When I taught 5th grade, my colleague thought parts of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD were too scary.

  3. Having loved the narrator in Kneebone Boy, I hated the narrator in this one. Hated. Partly, I think, because we don’t know the narrator’s connection to the story. In Kneebone, we know the narrator is a sibling. In the Series of Unfortunate Events, we know the narrator’s being sent mysterious packages. In Tale Dark and Grimm, we have NO IDEA who the narrator is. Worse, the narrator seems to be in our world, not the fantasy world–so every time he opened his condescending mouth I was reminded that I was in the real world. I’m an immersive reader, I want to immerse myself fully in the world of the book. The narrator didn’t let me. And unlike Kneebone, this narrator didn’t add to my understanding of the narrative he was presenting.

    And constantly being promised scary when it wasn’t… it felt like the narrator was playing games with the reader, and not in a nice way. It felt like the reader was either being mocked or being asked to join the narrator in mocking other readers: “Oh, it’s SOOO scary, you can’t handle it, I’m better than you are because I can. . . . Oh, you COULD handle it, does that make you feel like you’re better than the other readers, too?” It felt spiteful.

    As for the tales… I loved the treatment of the tales in the first half of the book, and even though I didn’t know most of them I know their type and they worked, but once we get to the dragon stuff, I found it preachy, uninspired, and to have lost its Grimm-ness.

    Obviously I have a very emotional reaction to it, but I also didn’t see its distinguished-ness. The characters and their growth were only seen on a surface level, the plot got lost in the narration and the preaching, the setting was barely there, and the writing… well, I’m not sure I can approach the writing without getting all emotional and pissy again.

  4. October 28 publish date??? Like FORGE too late for this discssion?

  5. I’m going to preface this by admitting I have not gotten my hands on a copy yet . . .

    But I need some help here . . . on one hand, Jonathan is questioning whether or not knowledge of the Grimm fairy tales is required upon reading this and having the fullest reading experience. On the other hand, the Newbery criteria states, “”Original work” means that the text was created by this writer and no one else. It may include original retellings of traditional literature, provided the words are the author’s own.”

    Technically, it sounds like Gidwitz is retelling traditional literature in A TALE DARK AND GRIMM. This book should be fair game. But then what about the criteria that states, “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.” Isn’t some basic knowledge of the Gimm fairy tales technically a side “component” of this book? Are Grimm characters even used?

    Isn’t the criteria contradictory? In part, Gidwitz’s novel should be fully considered, yet it also shouldn’t depend on other material when considered. But it does. Heck, the title of the book suggests that, by using “GRIMM” instead of “GRIM”.

    Furthermore . . . according to the Newbery criteria, this book could and should be judged on it’s “interpretation of theme or concept”. It sounds to me that a large concept of this book is the reimagining of some Grimm fairy tales. So if you are to accurately judge his book on “interpretation of concept”, and his concept is the Grimm fairy tales, shouldn’t the committee have some knowledge of the Grimm fairy tales in their back pocket in order to do so? How can that be though?

    It sounds like this book is a total homage to the Grimm fairy tales, and that’s great. It is what it is. But doesn’t the committee have to judge it for what it is? And if what it is, is an homage to other fiction work, that creates quite the conundrum! Somebody help explain this . . .

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Even though FORGE (which we discussed here on November 3), A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD, and other late publications did not make it onto our mock Newbery shortlist, we will continue to discuss them on this blog.

    I would definitely consider this an original retelling, especially since the fairy tales have been fractured and reassembled as part of a larger whole. I think the issue here is this: To what extent does an appreciation of this book depend on a knowledge of the source material and how does that affect its distinction? I think its entirely possible to appreciate this book on its own terms, but then I think that of A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS and FORGE, too.

  7. Jonathan, I disagree with this correlation you are trying to make (and it always drives me crazy when you do it with various books that don’t seem similar to me:). There is an enormous difference between needing something from a previous book in a series (part of a larger story arc) to appreciate the book in its entirety and a book taking off from some original folk tales. While you may have wanted to know how true to the original stories the author was being that just what you, Jonathan, needed. Kids just become immersed in the story and want to find out what happens next. A few of mine were vaguely curious, but no more. Same here — sort of curious, but not terribly. Whether or not readers of A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS feel frustrated because they feel they needed the previous books seems completely different.

    Mr. H, it isn’t an homage as much as a deepening and taking into new and uncharted territories. That is totally fair game for Newbery.

    Miriam, your reaction is so interesting. Since I am in the classroom daily reading aloud this narrator felt so authentic to me — a true storyteller doing what I do when I read aloud. In fact, there were moments when I read when the kids would start to ask a question that the narrator had anticipated and would then answered. This happened numerous times and it felt to me (clearly not to you:) that this was someone who knew his audience of children and just what they needed. And it was really really scary for some kids so I think again the narrator was preparing those readers. I don’t think it was meant to be a tease but a sincere warning. I just saw the narrator as the storyteller, gentle and caring and sometimes snarky — but never about the readers.

  8. Okay . . . let me put it this way: Would a committee member be allowed to go back and familiarize themselves with the Grimm fairy tales in order to gain a better understanding (or maybe “appreciation” is a better word) for the story. Because of this greater appreciation, would they be allowed to point out specifics in discussion about the plot or story that they now find to be “distinguished” interpretations of concept or theme?

  9. Monica, I wonder if part of the difference in reaction might have something to do with storytelling as a group experience versus reading as a solo experience. As a solo reader, I can put the book down at any point–and have, and have been putting down books that squick me out since I was quite little. *I* make the decision as to what’s too scary/gory/whatever, the decision isn’t foisted upon me. As a part of a group, I can’t put it down or make the story stop; my only choices are to listen or leave, and leaving a group is inherently difficult. So maybe being given permission to leave is important for a group experience, but for an individual, it isn’t necessary and felt like it was denying my right to determine what I can handle and what I can’t.

    And I really do sympathize from a group/external experience standpoint; I was at a sf/horror reading last spring, and one of the authors said, “This next story is the grossest, goriest thing I’ve ever written. If you have rape trigger issues or have trouble with lots of gore, think about stepping outside. It’s only three minutes and we’ll call you back in when we’re done.” I stepped outside and I really appreciated that the author had warned us and had given us an opportunity to do so. But he still presented it as our choice in relation to our sensibilities, rather than Gidwitz’s blanket “hide the children!” And obviously “hide the children” was tongue-in-cheek because it’s a kids book, but it still feels more like bossing and than informing and warning.

    And if we’re judging on text alone, how do we take into account the different personal/group reading dynamic?

  10. I’ve about a quarter of this book to go and I’m feeling ambivalent. I enjoy the stories, the narrator, the humor, and even the gore. What I find lacking is vibrant characters. Hansel and Gretel are bold, and brave, and put upon, but otherwise dull as dirt. While the gore is disturbing I’m not finding enough tension to be truly scared. I will enjoy book-talking this to my students and may even try and find a way to read it aloud, but I find it seriously lacking distinguishedness .

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, in both cases there is an intertextual relationship between the eligible Newbery title and ineligible source material, a relationship that may “confuse” or “aggravate” the reader. I put confuse and aggravate in quotation marks because confusion is a subjective state and what confuses one person does not necessarily confuse another.

    Here’s the problem. I know the story of Hansel and Gretel and I was able to appreciate the way Gidwitz played with the story. That is, I was able to discern whether it was an original retelling, and how faithful it was to the original version. I was unfamilar with the other stories: Faithful Johannes, The Seven Swallows (The Seven Ravens), Brother and Sister, A Smile as Red as Blood, and The Three Golden Hairs. I went from being an insider (knowing the story, appreciating the variant, etc.) to being an outsider in the others, so I wasn’t really able to fully appreciate it because my perception is that I needed to know those stories, and perception becomes reality. You talk about “needing something from a previous book in a series (part of a larger story arc) to appreciate the book in its entirety” and I think that’s exactly what’s happening here. I need to know these stories in order to appreciate the book in its *entirety*. This is a fun academic discussion because we both find A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS and A TALE DARK AND GRIMM distinguished.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mr. H, well as a committee member, *I* personally would hunt down the stories to compare them, but that leads us to the issue that Monica and I are wrangling about. Is it fair for committee members to acquaint themselves with the six Grimm stories, but not acquaint themselves with CHAINS (FORGE) and THE THIEF, THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA, and THE KING OF ATTOLIA (A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS). Is that a fair expectation?

  13. Personally, as an outsider, I don’t see the fairness in that and I see the criteria as being very contradictory.

    Would THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS be nearly as entertaining if we weren’t familiar with the original? If we are to judge a book solely on it’s text, yet books that are retellings of traditional literature are fair game, I’m not quite seeing how that’s possible! Something’s gotta give . . .

  14. Jonathan, I now get it:)

  15. Miss Julia says:

    On the other hand, Mr. H, Where the Mountain meets the Moon uses several Chinese legends and stories to tell the whole story and it won an Honor. Soooo maybe using the stories, or parts thereof, are considered acceptable.

    Gee, Jonathan, did you feel like looking those stories up? Smile!

    Disclaimer: I have read your comments, but not the book being discussed…

  16. Very interesting.
    I have read the book and find it distinguished, though I thought it would work well for older students–more middle school than grades 3-5, where SLJ and others put it. I found it quite scary and I would not feel comfortable reading it aloud to fourth graders here. At times, the gore was too much for me, even though I was quite familiar with the original Grimms tales. I am not sure I will get over the soul-sucking character, nor the terrifying walk into his woods. I found myself talking to the book–“No, don’t go there!”

    I rather like intrusive narrators, but this one did get on my nerves. I appreciate Monica’s comments and now agree that it might sound like a “real” storyteller when read aloud, but I assume that older readers will be reading the book silently and might tire of the intrusion.

  17. If I was a kid, I would want to read this more than the others discussed. Hell, I’m adult and I wanted to keep reading this more than the others in the shortlist. As far as literary merit goes, the fact that kids can familiarize themselves with these fairy tales without trying to crack open a Grimms’ Fairy Tales is wonderful. The Brothers Grimm tend to be dry since they were trying to preserve German history, edit out the bloodier parts, and teach children to be good.

    Kids actually have a chance with this. I cannot wait for Thanksgiving when I get to test this book out with my nieces and nephews.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I do think A TALE DARK AND GRIMM has broader child appeal than many of the others commonly mentioned as leading Newbery contenders (COUNTDOWN, DREAMER, KEEPER, ONE CRAZY SUMMER). If I was on Team-Get-Kids-Reading-the-Best-of-the-Best this would be very high on my list.

    Aside from the opening, the first half of the book dragged a bit for me, too, but I found that the further I read, the more the stories began to connect, and the more I began to appreciate its distinguishedness. But–and we had this problem with WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON–the characters are flat. Yes, fairy tale characters are flat, but novel characters are traditionally not. Likewise, I think many people will find the writing itself too plain, but again not uncharacteristic of the language of fairy tales (and as I mentioned, I think the narrator’s voice adds some contrast here).

    I do love the cover art which would be nicely complemented by either silver or gold.

  19. I wanted to wait until both me and my 9 year old daughter read this book before I commented. Like Caitlyn, this is the only book that kept me turning its pages this year. couldn’t put it down. I was surprised I loved it so much, but I think it had to do mostly with the character/integrity nuggets. I loved it. As far as the narrator issue goes, didn’t anyone see Princess Bride? This reminded me a lot of that movie where the narrator is kind of sarcastic and humorous. It worked. That movie is a classic. As far as child appeal, my daughter also liked it (though not as much as I did). In fact, she is reading it again today after reading the entire book yesterday. She did think it was scary and gross, but obviously wanted to read it again. I know it didn’t make the shortlist, but I wish it had. I’m with Jonathan…either silver or gold would look great on this cover.

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      Kristen, Betsy Bird just “predicted” this one at her blog “A Fuse #8 Production”:

      I enjoyed this one a lot, and can see your connection to Princess Bride, though I feel this takes a decidely darker (and more satisfying) turn. I was intially turned off though by the narrator’s constant interjections…just felt a little gimmicky to me. And there was something awkward I thought in the shape of the plotting/characters… there’s a lot of gimmicky humor to set up the dark turn, and it took a little too long for me.

      These are minor complaints, but enough that I didn’t feel quite compelled to argue a spot for it on our shortlist. Glad to see it holding onto its following though!

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