Click here to download an Educator’s Guide to A Tale Dark & Grimm
What if I’m a teacher, librarian, or bookseller, and I love the book, but a nervous parent asks me whether it’s appropriate for her child?
Here are five things you can say to a parent who’s nervous about the violence in the original Grimm fairy tales or in A Tale Dark and Grimm:
- 1. If you’re not comfortable with your kid reading something, you probably have a good intuition about it, and you should go with that intuition. Every child is different, and you know your child best of all.
- 2. Some kids may not be old enough for the book. That’s important to recognize. Again, it’s going to depend on your child.
- 3. Fairy tale violence was made for kids—especially, in the case of the original Grimm, kids five and over. Or in the case of my book, kids ten and over. Unlike most of the movies that parents take their kids to see these days (Transformers, pretty much any action flick) fairy tales are told with children in mind. That means that fairy tales, despite the blood, are truly appropriate for children. They are, crucially, emotionally appropriate for children. But again, see #1.
- 4. All the violence that happens in fairy tales is introduced with the words “Once upon a time…” Unlike movie or TV violence, this takes the violence out of the realm of real life and makes it far less threatening. I have had students who were traumatized by the local nightly news, but reveled in any fairy tale you could find. This is in part because of #3, and in part because the scary stuff began with the words “Once upon a time…” and ended with, “And they all lived happily ever after.” That makes a huge difference to most children.
- 5. The kind of violence in fairy tales means something to kids—much more so than TV or movie violence; it symbolizes deeper things. Two of the three little pigs getting eaten does not upset most children, because those little pigs grow up, in the child’s mind, into the third little pig. The violence is not just appropriate, it is serving the child’s emotional needs. I think Bettelheim explains it well. Check it out in my “In Defense of Real Fairy Tales” section here. Or read my piece “Tears into Blood.”
Can you explain your strange narrator? What’s that about?
Well, it came out of telling stories—Grimm and others—to my students. When I tell a story, I look into the kids’ faces, I read their reactions. If someone’s getting scared, I pull back a bit, shine some humor on what’s happening, or give a hint about what will happen. If the kids are getting bored, or overwhelmed with high-falutin’ language, I ramp up the tension or the humor.
The point is to keep the kids excited and maximally attentive, so that all the things that the stories are doing will get into their big, developing brains. So when I’m writing, I literally pretend I’m telling the story to children, leaning in here or out there, trying to create for the reader the experience that I would create for my kids in the classroom. I try to love my readers as much as I love my students, and make them happy and make them feel cared for, just as I do for my students. That’s where the narrator comes from.
This book is kind of bloody. Who can read it? Is it appropriate for seven year olds? How about for forty-five year olds?
It’s definitely not appropriate for forty-five year olds. It’s funny and scary and forty-five year olds will probably hate it. But as for seven year olds…
The official age on the book is 10 and up (up to forty-four, that is), but I have read scary parts of the book to classes of seven and eight year olds, and they’ve been ecstatic about it.
I have this deep and widely derided belief that kids know what they need. Philip Pullman says that kids need stories, for example, and the reason we can’t pull them away from the TV set is that the fastest, easiest ways to get stories is TV. So while we may not want them to watch TV, the children are going after something that they need. I also think children know when something is wrong for them. If you start talking about your tortured relationship with your mother, most seven year olds will tune you out and start thinking about that spaceship they were designing upstairs. Because they feel weird about that conversation. They tend to know what they need, and what they need not to experience. Children above all need parents, and rely on their parents to help them express their needs and aversions. This is crucial.
Which is all an incredibly long way of saying that you know your child, and your child knows himself. Some kids love gore and scary things. Others do not. The latter need not apply, if you know what I mean.
How did you start writing A Tale Dark and Grimm?
It happened like this.
I had taken off from teaching that year to work on a book about ancient Egypt. I spent every day beating my brains out over the thing, crafting a sprawling historical novel about war and growing up. Occasionally, to make some cash and because it’s about the most fun thing in the whole world, I would go into Saint Ann’s, where I had taught and now, again, teach, to substitute in the library. One of these days, in the spring, I was told to just bring whatever I wanted to read to the kids. So I grabbed my Grimm fairy tales off the shelf.
I had been reading Grimm seriously for about a year, but had never had the courage to share it with students because of the gore and the general insanity. But on this day, I thought, You know what? Let’s do this thing. So I got in front of the kids, turned to my favorite Grimm tale–the one I find most outrageous, most strangely structured, the most inexplicably alluring: Faithful Johannes. And I began to read. I hadn’t gotten very far when I found this weird thing about the secret door, and I put a finger in my big red cloth-bound Grimm and looked at the kids and said, “I’m sorry. I need to stop for a moment.” And then I started joking about closets and bathrooms, and the kids were laughing. I found I kept having to do this—stop and comment, stop and explain. So I get to the end of the story, and the kids are dumbfounded. (If you don’t know the story, read it, or read my book, and you’ll know why they were dumbfounded). There is a moment of silence, and in that moment my future literally hung undecided. I didn’t know it, of course. And it’s a melodramatic thing to say. But it is true. And then the kids erupted. “That was so good!” “I love that!” “Will you make that into a book?” “Yes, please?” “Please?” I told them it was already in a book, and went home.
But I thought about what the kids said, as I sweated and wept over my Egypt manuscript, and then, one day, I literally was on my way out the door of my apartment, just about to descend the steps to the street, when I paused, and thought, “I could write that book. I could write it right now.” And I went back inside and sat down and stood up three hours later with an early, ugly, messy first draft of that first chapter.
Two years later, it’s being published. And I have those kids to thank for it.
Tell me about that beautiful cover and all the art inside! Who made it?
The brilliant Hugh D’Andrade made it. For the story of how he did it, click here. For his website with other amazing art he’s done, go here.
I’m often asked if I get to work with the artist to determine what will be on or in the book. The answer is no! Which can be scary for an author (what if the artist messes it up?). So I got incredibly lucky to have an artist with the imagination and talent of Hugh. And look: the whole website is composed of his art!
Were you always a writer? Did you want to be a writer as a kid?
When I was younger, this was my life:
Me, in my room, playing with action figures—little plastic dudes with masks and guns and grappling hooks. I’d take two in my hands. The bad guy would come up to the good guy and say something insulting. The good guy wasn’t going to stand for it, and he’d say so. The bad guy’d take a swing at the good guy. And from there they’d just whale on each other—upper cuts and roundhouse kicks and jabs to the solar plexus.
On sunny afternoons after school I’d go out to the basketball hoop in my backyard and would pretend to be an NBA star, narrating my career from my rookie season through my induction into the basketball Hall of Fame. I always made it into the Hall of Fame. I have a great imagination.
When it was too dark to play basketball, and I was sick of beating up imaginary bad guys for imaginary insults, I would crawl into bed with Roald Dahl’s The BFG, Gary Paulson’s Canyon, or Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee, and I would scrunch my body up real tight, and I would read about the most amazing places, the scariest events, the funniest people.
This is my life now:
My brother smashed all of my action figures when he got old enough to hold a hammer.
I live in Brooklyn, and can’t fit a hoop in my backyard anymore.
So I sit in front of my computer and write down all the things that I used to imagine when I was a kid. And people want to publish them. Then I crawl in bed with a book and laugh and gasp and try not to fall asleep until I finish the chapter.
I guess the point is, if you’ve got a good imagination and a good book, you’re pretty much set for life.
Are you a teacher who writes, or a writer who teaches?
Great question. I have no idea.
They are like two different sides of my personality. The public side–laughing with kids, planning lessons for them, debating and discussing and provoking. I come home from teaching each day full of energy and joy.
And then, or sometimes before I go, I get to curl up in front of my computer and imagine. And I work with my imagination, pushing and prodding it, until it takes a form that will be, I hope, as satisfying to others as it is to me.
So I am both, and very much so. And of course, in writing I hope to do the same thing I do with my teaching: to lead children to a deeper, more emotionally connected and integrated understanding of the world.
Home much of the book is straight from the Grimm stories and how much is original?
It’s really a mix.
Some of the chapters are very similar to the Grimm versions. In “Faithful Johannes,” for example, there are only a few major differences: the Brothers Grimm didn’t know that the children in “Faithful Johannes” were in fact Hansel and Gretel, so I had to fix that; nor did they know how strange and funny the ravens were, so I put that in there; and obviously they neglected to warn the little kids to go hide under the bed, or question Johannes’ wisdom on the whole secret room thing. But the story of the chapter is straight Grimm.
Then there are chapters like “Brother and Sister” or “The Three Golden Hairs,” which share titles and some plot elements with the Grimm stories, but are really pretty different. If you’re a teacher you might enjoy comparing the differences with a class of yours. If you’re a kid, you might want to read the originals just because they’re strange and awesome, too. Even if they’re not true.
Finally, there are the last three chapters of the book, which the Brothers Grimm knew nothing about, and which I had to uncover through a long and arduous research process, poring over various versions of the stories, visiting the land of Grimm, talking to wrinkly old ladies who live under bridges… It got pretty hairy. But that’s how true stories are uncovered.