Essays & Articles

Marjorie Ingall, The New York Times

When I was 10, I found an ancient collection of Grimm fairy tales in the basement. I cracked the dusty black cover, not expecting much (I knew Cinderella and Snow White and their stupid hair and trilling voices from movies I’d outgrown) and was transfixed. These stories were sick, serious and bloody. Cinderella’s sisters did what to their feet? I sat on that cold basement floor and read the entire thick volume (a 1920 version, with sinuous Art Deco illustrations by Elenore Abbott).


I felt both thrilled and duped — why had no one told me that fairy tales were creepily delicious?


The appeal wasn’t just the gross-out factor, of course; it’s that fairy tales are about transformation. Someone powerless becomes a hero; boundaries are crossed and identities are altered. There’s magic and trickery and cunning. Often the protagonist gets help from unexpected, seemingly humble, places. The bad guys are really bad — rich and greedy, generally murderous, perpetually trying to hog all the magic. Stripped of layers of Hollywood cuteness, these are elemental tales of danger and justice.


In recent years there’s been a boomlet in middle-grade and young adult novels based on the Grimm Brothers’ tales: Michael Buckley’s “Sisters Grimm” series; Malinda Lo’s “Ash” (a lesbian retelling of “Cinderella”); Jackson Pearce’s “Sisters Red” (a werewolf-hunting revamp of “Little Red Riding Hood”) and many more. I suspect this is a reaction to how constrained many children’s lives have become. Stuck in manicured suburbs and cooped up after school in cities, today’s middle-class kids are marched from one résumé-building activity to another, hermetically sealed in peanut-free bubbles.


Fairy tales, with their mystery and violence and free-range, underparented children, may seem particularly enticing to today’s tweens and teenagers. Which doesn’t mean all retellings will appeal to all young readers, of course. “Reckless,” by Cornelia Funke, may please fans of traditional fantasy novels but doesn’t seem likely to slip the surly bonds of genre. In self-consciously poetic prose it tells the story of Jacob Reckless, a rather unlikable young man who ditches his real-world family (as his father did before him) for adventures in the Mirrorworld.


When Jacob’s younger brother, Will, follows him through the mirror, bad things happen. Will is cursed by a Dark Fairy and begins metamorphosing into a Goyl, a warlike stone creature.


Jacob has to stop being so darn self-absorbed and save Will, with the help of Will’s girlfriend, Clara, and Jacob’s traveling companion, Fox, who is a fox, except when she isn’t.


Funke’s descriptions of the veins of stone creeping across Will’s face and body are nifty, as are the snippets of fairy tale imagery. (Jacob brushes past Sleeping Beauty, unkissed and undiscovered, lying in a dusty, rosebush-choked castle, her gown yellowing and her skin becoming thin as parchment.)


But reading “Reckless” is like hacking through thorns. We’re plunked into a teeming fairy tale world with too many undifferentiated characters coming at us. The writing is often stilted (“Smoke from countless coal furnaces blackened the windows and the walls, and the cold autumn air certainly did not smell of damp leaves, even though the Dwarfs’ sewer system was vastly superior to that of the Empress” — wait, what?).


Funke is also fond of sentence fragments. (“Girl. Woman. So much more vulnerable. Strong and yet weak. A heart that knew no armor.” Sounds like.William Shatner. As. Captain Kirk.) But the story picks up steam, and I found myself hoping that the inevitable sequel would focus on the intriguing Fox. (Be forewarned: the publisher says the book is for “10 and up” readers, but I’d call it Y.A. Seduction is used as a bargaining chip, and there’s a character called the Tailor who is about as terrifying as anything in the “Saw” movies.)


Way less grim is “The Grimm Legacy” by Polly Shulman, a fizzy confection that takes the story of Cinderella as its starting point. Put-upon Elizabeth is a mensch (we know this because she gives her gym shoes to a homeless woman on Page 1). Her mom has died, and her dad has remarried a shallow narcissist. What with the cost of her stepsisters’ college tuition and all, Elizabeth has to give up her expensive school and is either bullied or ignored in her new one.


But noting that Elizabeth is “hardworking and warmhearted, with an independent mind,” her teacher gets her a job as a page at the New-York Circulating Material Repository. The repository is a sort of library dating from the 18th century, now housed in a brownstone near Central Park that’s mysteriously bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, with glorious Tiffany windows that . . . well, surely the images in the windows aren’t moving?


The collection contains a variety of magical objects from the Grimms’ tales — seven-league boots, spindles, straw, a golden egg, a spiteful mirror. (And, entertainingly, everything has a Dewey decimal number.) But someone is stealing the magic, and Elizabeth and the other pages must figure out what’s going on — despite the fact that they don’t know which adults they can trust.


The story buzzes along at a delightful clip, and though the narrative falls apart a bit toward the end, it’s a fun ride.


“A Tale Dark & Grimm,” by Adam Gidwitz, is something else entirely. In fact, it’s unlike any children’s book I’ve ever read. If “Reckless” is an old-school fairy tale fantasy, and “The Grimm Legacy” is a modern one, “A Tale Dark & Grimm” is a completely postmodern creation. It plunks Hansel and Gretel into a succession of other, lesser-known Grimm tales — “Faithful Johannes,” “The Three Golden Hairs,” “Brother and Sister” and more — but creates a narrative through-line that wends through all the tales like a trail of bread crumbs. Parents do horrible things; they fail their children, and they kill them. But Hansel and Gretel become true heroes — they go on a quest; they save others; they come home; they learn to understand their parents’ burdens and failings. Heavy. And yet “A Tale Dark & Grimm” is really, really funny. The first line is “Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.”


The tone ricochets between lyrical and goofy. There’s an intrusive, Snicket-y narrator who warns the reader every time gore is imminent, apologizing, urging the reader to hustle the little kids out of the room. And it all works. As the story progresses, it gets less and less faithful to the source material and becomes its own increasingly rich and strange thing. A Child’s Garden of Metafiction! It reminds me of Eudora Welty’s “Robber Bridegroom,” in which bits of fairy tales, myths, legends and Southern folklore are stitched together into a marvelous new . . . something.


My 8-year-old daughter, a tough critic who doesn’t like scary books, read “A Tale Dark & Grimm” three times, back to back. She was enchanted, not terrified. And no wonder. “A Tale Dark & Grimm” holds up to multiple rereadings, like the classic I think it will turn out to be.

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