When I teach my second graders about Grimm’s fairytales, they are often shocked by the graphic details in the stories they know only through the Disney movies they have watched since toddlerhood. It’s interesting to watch their faces when Cinderella’s stepsisters lop off their toes and heels or when Snow White’s stepmother dances to her death in red-hot iron shoes. Now that I have read Adam Gidwitz’s take on Hansel and Gretel, I know exactly what my students really feel: sheer terror.
Like any good storyteller, Gidwitz lures his readers into his tale. His light touch, humorous use of direct address ("if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now") and tongue-in-cheek warnings make the reader want to take up his challenge and turn the page, no matter what.
Gidwitz weaves a number of original tales into one satisfying, daring story of a brother and sister making their way in a world where adults, particularly parents, are unreliable, untrustworthy and in desperate need of forgiveness. The children learn to rely on each other as they make their way through many trials and eventually back home.
I found one chapter, “A Smile as Red as Blood,” downright disturbing. It involves a young man who invites Gretel, despite the warnings of the author and every character in the story, to his home in the woods where he has lured many young women before. Cannibalism in fairy tales is nothing new, but these graphic descriptions, no matter how the narrator assures the reader of the eventual outcome, is more than a little surprising.
Readers looking for a truly terrifying story, one that might give the most hardened middle schooler delicious nightmares, need look no further. And, if they make their way to the end of this somewhat familiar tale, they might find “the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom” that awaits them in the land of Grimm.