Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 7: A Tale Dark and Grimm vs. They Called Themselves the K.K.K.

A Tale Dark and Grimm
by Adam Gidwitz
They Called Themselves the K.K.K.
by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Houghton Mifflin

Judged by
R.L. Stine

A TALE DARK & GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz

When I was in elementary school, I was already fascinated by the worlds of fantasy and magic and horror. I read every book of fairy tales in our school library. I then proceeded to our town library where I moved up and down the shelves of fairy tales, Norse legends, and Greek myths, devouring book after book.

As a long-time devotee of these stories, I opened Adam Gidwitz’ A Tale Dark and Grimm with great anticipation. I’m happy to say the book provided a wonderful return to the Grimm world—the world of dark woods, unspeakable evil, not-so-innocent children, witches, dragons, and more—that had enthralled me as a child.

Gidwitz has not only presented us with a masterful retelling and re-imagining of the original Grimm works. His book provides a wonderful lesson in story-telling—how stories are made, how they can be twisted and turned, and how they change over time.

The book is inviting right from the start. The author warns that the old Hansel and Gretel story isn’t what you expect, that fairy tales aren’t for the faint-of-heart. His warning that “the one true tale is as violent and bloody as you can imagine” makes the book irresistible. Who could stop reading after a warning like that?

He then presents a retelling of several Grimm tales, beginning with Hansel and Gretel and using them as protagonists for the ensuing stories. We follow the brother and sister from adventure to adventure, into the woods and out, into king’s castles and witch’s hovels, into deep darkness, and finally to  redemption– and even a happy ending. Thus he has cleverly tied the stories together and turned them into a novel.

Gidwitz’ writing is simple, clean, easy-to-read. In a word: delightful. He manages to capture all the dark feelings and atmosphere of the original tales in language appealing to kids today. He doesn’t modernize. He doesn’t camp it up. The writing is crisp and clear, and he takes the story-telling seriously.

He interrupts often to comment on what has just happened or warn against what is about to happen. Or to comment on a puzzling or bizarre plot point: Can you really kill a warlock by boiling him in a cauldron of serpents? (It’s definitely worth discussing, right?)

He achieves a light, teasing tone with these interruptions. They add a great deal of humor. They entice the reader to keep reading. And, they treat the reader as an insider, someone who is in on the joke, who understands how Gidwitz is manipulating the stories—and teasing the readers.

This is flattering to the reader. But I have one negative comment here. The author has far too many warnings about not letting little kids read the “next part.” These warnings are funny at first but eventually become tedious. By the time you reach page 70, you know whether you are enjoying the stories or not. You do not need the author’s repeated “warnings.”

I don’t think kids need to be warned about the many wonderful scenes of horror in these stories. I think kids will relish them. For me, one of the most horrifying is when the king, their father, is convinced he must chop off Hansel and Gretel’s heads. The axe is swung. The heads are cut off. In fact, axes are swung many times in these stories. Children are hacked. Gretel chops off her own finger. Hansel and Gretel have a revenge of sorts at the end with a gruesome act of fratricide.

Gidwitz doesn’t delve into the psychology of the acts here. They are what they are. But what he does so masterfully is to seemingly end a tale—then tease more out of the story… and more… and more. Until without even realizing it, the reader has been given a clear lesson in story structure and how an author builds a tale.

One negative comment: The jacket cover is humorous and cartoony and not as sophisticated as the text. I only wish the cover artist had taken the material as seriously as the author.

All in all, this is a wonderful, entertaining book. I think middle grade readers will find it as enticing and rewarding as I did.


THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE K.K.K. by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Ms. Bartoletti has won many awards, including a Newberry Honor and the Sibert Medal, for her works of historical nonfiction. Previous books explored Hitler Youth, the horrors and hardships of the Irish Famine, and growing up in coal country.

This book—an astounding feat of research—begins after the Emancipation Proclamation and traces the problems of the freed slaves during Reconstruction and the growth of the white supremacy organization that formed in reaction to the social and political changes in the South.

According to the jacket notes, Bartoletti’s research included studying an 8,000-page Congressional document—The Ku Klux Klan Report. In addition, she compiled and read 2300 slave narratives, many of which accompany the text. And she read newspapers, diaries, and memoirs of the time.

This is a very complete and well-organized history. In addition to describing the events, the participants, and the reasons behind all that ensued in the South after the Civil War, she presents fascinating documents, newspaper fragments, and eyewitness accounts.

Young readers will especially be interested in examples of codes used to disguise secret KKK messages. Also, a 10-question quiz given to prospective new KKK members. Bonuses like these are a result of Bartoletti’s painstaking research.

Her research also allows her to include page after page of illustrations, editorial cartoons, and even photographs of the time. Photos of actual costumes worn by Klan members are chilling to see. So much hatred and fury in a mask and a robe. They were ornate and designed to look ghost-like. Klan members believed that blacks were inordinately afraid of ghosts. In actuality, they were more afraid of being beaten or hanged.

The wealth of illustrations and their concise, well-written captions offer a story on their own and provide glimpses of real life that go beyond the words of the text. In addition, the testimony of freed slaves, in their own words and dialect, is invaluable in bringing a human dimension to the story.

In They Called Themselves the K.K.K., we read the story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the Klan. We learn how he and his followers built what came to be called the Invisible Empire. They divided the country into realms, dominions, and provinces. They built a country within a country, with its own constitution, leaders, and law enforcement—all dedicated to the idea that white people should reign supreme in all areas of American life.

Bartoletti shows us that this group was not a small clique. At one point, Forrest boasted that he could raise an army of 40,000 men if goaded to action.


The author has provided us with an invaluable resource—in words and visuals—of this tumultuous post-war time in the South. And a clear description of how a hate group such as the KKK can use people’s anxieties and prejudices to spread fear, hatred, and violence.

Near the beginning of the book, there’s a nice description of the chores a young house slave might be expected to do. I wish the author had presented more of the story from the point-of-view of kids and teenagers. How were kids affected? How did they feel about the events of this tumultuous time?

I was disappointed by the lack of focus on the young. This book will be used by high school students and anyone older who wishes to study this time period. But not much of an attempt is made to relate the material to young readers. How were young people’s lives affected by the rise of the K.K.K.? The answer isn’t found here.

In addition, I think the language level might prove difficult for many young people. I kept wishing terms such as “Reconstruction” or “Emancipation” were explained for a young audience. The difficult reading level will prove a roadblock to many young readers.


They Called Themselves the K.K.K. is a valuable resource, a thoroughly researched work, and a well-organized piece of historical writing. But because it focuses so little on young people, and it isn’t written in language designed to  appeal to them, I feel many young readers will have difficulty with it.

For this reason, I’m declaring the winner to be A Tale Dark and Grimm.

— R. L. Stine

And the Winner of this match is…


R.L. Stine is an appropriate and inspired judge for this pairing as each book has some horror, whether the delightfully gruesome hackings of A Tale Dark and Grimm or horrifying terror of the Klan in They Called Themselves the KKK.  I personally would have gone with Bartoletti for this round, but I certainly appreciate the virtues of Gidwitz, and I appreciate the insightful analysis of both, although I do have a couple of quibbles.  First, I don’t think children and teens necessarily need to read about themselves in order to connect to nonfiction.  Although Bartoletti has made that connection in some of her previous books, there’s no point in forcing the issue if it doesn’t emerge organically.  And second, I’m actually quite fond of the cover for A Tale Dark and Grimm, cartoony silhouettes notwithstanding.  Which foe is more formidable?  Tiny Cooper and the Will Graysons or the dumpsite boys: Raphael, Gardo, and Rat?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

Roxanne Feldman About Roxanne Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at


  1. Ah, the judges are finally getting more predictable! (Though yet another one described the winner first.) My ratio is much better after the last two rounds — 3 out of 7 now. If Will Grayson wins, I’ll be up to 50%. (Though that’s another I don’t feel strongly about.)

    I have just begun A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, and it really does call back my childhood readings of the Grimm fairy tales. When R. L. Stine described that he’d read fairy tales as a kid, too, I was pretty sure this was what he’d pick.

  2. How intriguing to hear from the actual R.L. Stine. He hogs up so much shelf space in my library I had doubts that he was really a single person and not some sort of Stratemeyer conglomeration. I will give Mr. Stine all the credit in the world for knowing what children like to read. How else can I explain that books my now twenty-something boys were drooling over in third grade, are still being slobbered over by today’s third graders?

    It’s interesting that both books he judged are hot potatoes in my library at the moment. A few months ago I read the introduction of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM to ever 4-6th grade class. The hold list instantly rivaled the waiting line for a Johnny Depp autograph at the teen choice awards.

    Surprisingly the KKK book has been on continual check-out since my Newbery club closed up shop. Its readers have all been sixth grade boys with very curious minds.

    It is a testament to the current condition of children’s literature that there is room for all sorts of blood, gore and horror. Some of it may be bringing about a higher social conscience.

  3. Wow! This is just as I hoped but not what I was expecting from the write up! RL Stine, just like your books! Love this!!!

  4. A WONDERFUL post: articulate, sensible, all about the books rather than the judge. Best of the year, IMHO. And I agree that KKK might have been even stronger with more delving into the young. I do think that’s what young people are more interested in, and I think that’s been shown time and time again in their reading choices and TV/movie preferences. Listing flaws and strengths of both books really made me feel that Stine read each book thoroughly, and GOT each book thoroughly. Thank you!

  5. I agree with Wendy. I was looking forward to Mr. Stine’s reveal more than any others and was not let down. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting coming from him, for some reason, but it was by far the most focused critique this year. Nice job Mr. Stine, and thanks for keeping my top pick alive!

  6. Can I just say two things?

    1) To have the Holy Pontiff of Horror’s blessing is way more than I hoped for (or, to be perfectly frank, expected). I can hear his edict ringing off the bloody walls of the Sistine Charnel House and still can’t believe I heard him right.

    2) After reading this review of They Call Themselves the KKK, not only have I ordered myself a copy, but I’m pretty sure it should have won. I’ve been reading it (through Amazon’s Look Inside) for the last hour, and it is as gripping as it is terrifying.

  7. Huzzah! I am sure that that one was very highly predictable… A very fun book, rather then a more dark one. Well, they were both fairly dark but at least Grimm was purely fictional. Predictable of R.L Stine. But the absurd decision that Countdown could be beaten? No! Completely and utterly UNpredictable! And outrageous!


  1. […] Six and Seven did go as I hoped/predicted, won by The Ring of Solomon and A Tale Dark and Grimm. Match Eight did […]

Speak Your Mind