I recently got to listen to Adam Gidwitz and several other authors* discuss fairy tales, why people love them, and why these authors had chosen to retell them in some way. These people were funny, delightful characters. I wanted to invite them all over for a party and a book club. I wanted to shake their hands and soak in their awesomeness. And—probably what they cared about more than my admiration—I wanted to buy their books.
So I picked up a copy of Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. Gidwitz himself was witty, amusing, and used the word “awesome” at least five times—which I found to be, quite frankly, awesome. How could I not buy his book? On a more serious note: He talked about the archetypal quality of fairy tales, and how that makes them—even the gruesome ones—less traumatic to read and easier for children to process. He said that he deliberately tried to keep that quality in his books so he could tell the worst tales without overwhelming children. I was intrigued; generally what I have loved about fairy tale retellings is that they take the archetypal and vague qualities and give them life and depth and complexity and specificity. I wanted to see how he made his versions work.
And, to my view, he did so beautifully. I think there are three things that make this book work so well:
First, the narrative voice. The narrator, like Gidwitz himself, is dry and funny and gives you the opportunity to step back briefly from the worst parts of the story. A repeated theme when he gets to the gruesome bits is something like, “Now, have we made sure there are no children in the room?” Or, “You may want to skip this next part.” A bit like Lemony Snicket, but he doesn’t overwhelm the narrative like Snicket sometimes did.
The point is that the narrator provides opportunities to step out of the story for a moment and warns you when it’s about to get bad, inserts humorous asides and commentaries, and even throws in a good moral or two for kicks.
Which leads us directly to the second thing that I think works nicely in this book: the bits of moral thrown in. I tend to be one who hates being beaten over the head by morals in fiction.** And a lot of the original fairy tales are pretty much a lesson wrapped into some bare minimum of plot. And yet. He manages tossing in a fair number of morals or at least ideas to consider, I think partially because of the matter-of-fact way the narrator and the characters face difficult and/or illuminating truths. And the personal way they do it.
And finally, the third bit that makes this book so delightful: the overall structure. In short, the story follows Hansel and Gretel through the twists and turns of a whole slew of Grimm fairy tales, most of which I didn’t know (fun times! I want to go read them now!). Gidwitz has made them the featured characters in all those stories that just had “a girl” or “a boy” in them. They’re the stars. And then he also does a nice job at the end of showing how we got the versions we have. But pulling together so many disparate tales into one fluid story? Fun and delightful.
Overall, yes, it’s gruesome. There is blood, there is dismemberment, there is boiling a warlock in oil with a bunch of poisonous snakes. There are murderers and terrible decisions and sadness and death. And while some heads are reattached, and some wounds are miraculously fixed (it turns out stringettes probably would be helpful!), some are not. But there’s a kind of meaning in all the suffering (mostly). I hate to say it’s lovely, because that’s a pretty weird word to attach to this book. Especially if I want any young boys to read it. But it kind of is.
I’ve checked out the next one, In a Glass Grimmly, from the library. Looking forward to reading that one too.
*Including Shannon Hale! Squee! But that is a story for another time.**If I’m reading various genres of nonfiction, I’m perfectly willing to expect it. After all, who reads a self-help book not wanting to get the moral to the story?