Essays & Articles

Jennifer M. Brown, Children’s Book Critic, Shelf Awareness

In this captivating first novel, Adam Gidwitz reimagines a half-dozen Grimm tales with Hansel and Gretel in the starring role. This clever through-line allows him to examine the relationship between children and adults in classic fairy tales. I know, I know. You’re saying, “Must I really open yet another book published this year inspired by the Brothers Grimm?” Yes, you must!

The narrator’s irreverent tone and the breakneck (sometimes literally) pace will enthrall readers of all ages. Because the author does not shy away from gore, however, you will want to heed his warning: “Are there any small children in the room now? If so, it would be best if we just let them think this really is the end of the story and hurried them off to bed.” The first, perhaps less familiar tale, “Faithful Johannes,” tells of a servant loyal to generations of kings. When the old king is on his deathbed, he makes Johannes swear to show his son, the new king, all of his estate except for one room–the room with the portrait of the golden princess. “For if he sees the portrait, he will fall madly in love with her. And I fear it will cost him his life,” says the dying king. And of course, the newly crowned king wants to enter the forbidden room. The sarcastic narrator says, “Why didn’t Johannes say something else? Like, ‘It’s a broom closet.’ ” Johannes ends up saving the king three times after he seeks out the golden princess. But in return, the faithful servant demands that the king cut off the heads of his children, Hansel and Gretel (okay, so in the original version, it’s two sons–but trust me, the Hansel and Gretel motif really works in this collection). The siblings get their heads restored to their rightful places but “they believed firmly in their little hearts that parents should not kill their children”–and who can blame them? And that’s when they run away from home and discover the baker woman who makes her house of chocolate cake. It makes perfect sense!
Gidwitz creates logic where there was none in story after story as he threads together “The Seven Swallows” (Gretel plays the sought-after daughter) and “Brother and Sister,” to which the author adds an environmental twist. Hansel turns into a beast because he takes more than he needs from Lebenwald, the Wood of Life. The two siblings separate at this point, and Gretel enters into a “Robber Bridegroom” retelling (called “A Smile as Red as Blood” in this book), and again the author adds another layer when Gretel places herself in danger by following the object of her infatuation into the Schwarzwald, the Wood of Darkness, against her kind guardian’s warning. Meanwhile, Hansel winds up a pawn to the devil in “The Three Golden Hairs.” Each tale builds on the one before. The boy hero’s gluttonous ways in “Hansel and Gretel” are a foreshadowing of his downfall in “Brother and Sister.” Gretel’s resourcefulness in “A Smile as Red as Blood” comes into play when she and Hansel make a plan to rid their father’s kingdom of a dragon that’s terrorizing the people. Key elements of earlier tales make the final story’s solution plausible.

There is no happily-ever-after in Gidwitz’s vision of Grimm. Instead, there is “well, not really,” “almost” and “nearly.” Sometimes that is the only word or phrase on an entire page. Sometimes Gretel acts the part of the hero, sometimes Hansel saves the day. Always, the author proves, as he reiterates, “In life, the darkest zones are where one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.” A luminous new wisdom has emerged from the dark Grimm zone and its name is Adam Gidwitz

Sign up for Adam’s newsletter by entering your info below: