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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 4: A Tale Dark and Grimm vs. Trash

A Tale Dark and Grimm
by Adam Gidwitz
by Andy Mulligan
David Fickling/Random House

Judged by
Pete Hautman

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

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. Three in a row, I know, was too much to expect. While I enjoyed Trash, Gidwitz’s book is the better written of the two, but this year especially, what do I know? I think Pete should have deleted his last paragraph.

  2. What a good and fair review. GRIMM certainly got it’s due. I would only quibble with the characterization of “fairly straightforward retellings”; in the beginning, they are. By the end, they bear little resemblance to the original Grimm stories. (Look at me, being a protective parent! So very unGrimm of me. Don’t worry; I’m hard at work dismembering the book in my basement).

    What a great contest this is. To have thoughtful, eminent authors read and appraise one’s book publicly is kinda crazily amazing. And best of all, it has introduced me to fantastic books I had missed. I’m in the middle of TRASH right now. Social, psychological, adventurous… what an amazing, amazing book. How do you “lose” this battle? I don’t think you do.

  3. I’m definitely looking forward to reading TRASH. At the same time, I wonder if Gidwitz’s novel is being given less than its due because it’s so clever. It’s witty and elegant and polished, yeah, okay. But underneath all that cleverness, it’s wise. The world of the fairy tale is a poetic world, so it might not look as gritty as the world of a futuristic novel. And it takes more imagination to see how the fairy tale world relates to our own. But A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is dealing with serious things–desire, betrayal, trust and coming of age. And it deals with them the way fairy tales do. It lets the readers decide how deep they want to go. Anyway, I guess what I mean is that a book can be clever without being trivial. No dishonor to TRASH–it sounds great. But I think A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is really original and works on a lot of different levels, and I’d hate to think it gets dismissed because it’s such a fun read.

  4. I’m so extremely sad right now because I really really wanted Mr. Gidwitz’s clever little novel to pull through here. I wish Mr. Hautman wouldn’t have posed the question of which book he’d like better as a youngin’ . . . ‘cuz I think you’d be pretty hard pressed to find a book that excites young readers as much as Adam Gidwitz’s book does. Excite them as readers, and as writers!

    I also, like Charly, feel that A TALE DARK AND GRIMM isn’t necessarily getting a fair shake. People often complain about the obtrusive narrator and mention the gore and child appeal, but say little about the themes present beneath it all. Gidwitz crafted an incredible story about growing up and seeking parental affection and the deep love children have for their parents. A TALE DARK AND GRIM is above all else, a book about family, and security and it irks me a little bit every time I read a critique about it that fails to mention any of this. You’d think some of the best authors today (our judges) would be able to see that! Hautman says that TRASH “cut deeper” but only really judges A TALE DARK AND GRIMM at face value. That’s irritating to me.

    But that’s me whining whining whining. Sob sob sob. I wanted A TALE DARK AND GRIMM to win and I have no doubt that TRASH is a fantastic novel, worthy of advancing in this contest. I understand that this contest comes down to personal opinion and if Mr. Hautman didn’t connect with A TALE DARK AND GRIMM the way I did, I can’t really make him, now can I?

  5. I find it funny that Ed wrote that he wished that Hautman deleted his last paragraph. After reading A TALE DARK AND GRIMM I wished that Gidwitz had deleted his final 4 chapters. I was enthralled with the book for the first two-thirds but found all the stuff with the dragon a little silly.

    TRASH’s ending on the other hand was pitch perfect.

  6. Way to hang in there Raphel, Gordo, and Jun. You will need to pull a fast one to get by Bartimaeus, but I have faith in you!

  7. Sam Bloom says

    Man, the two books from this tourney that I haven’t read – Ring of Solomon and Trash – making all kinds of noise! Looks like I need to get busy. I do feel the need to comment on a Tale Dark and Grimm. Adam Gidwitz is to be applauded for this clever and inventive book that is ABSOLUTELY LOADED with kid appeal. Seriously, this book is a librarian’s dream come true – need a book talk for 3rd grade – 8th grade? Look no further! But I hardly think it’s getting less than its due… how many starred reviews? A victory over KKK in the first round? Betsy Bird and Monica Edinger giving it love on their respective (and high traffic) blogs? Yeah, I think we’re good on this one getting the respect it deserves! I think Hautman did a pretty darn good job with his write-up… and I need to go now so I can read two really long books in two really short days!

  8. Finally finished Trash yesterday because my favorite authors said it was awesome! I felt the same way once I got into the story! I’ve been booktalking it all week!

  9. Ah… Mr. H, from reading your blog predictions it seems as though your fairly far away dreams for A Tale dark and Grimm to be overall victorious… has sadly melted away, by one click of the mouse. Alas, I too enjoyed the fun, second person book and am disappointed that it did not prevail.


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