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This book is what happens when a New York City schoolteacher stitches together nine fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm to form one coherent story—while, at the same time, restoring much of the original versions’ weird, scary, and bloody bits. And although the narrator often pulls the reader aside and begs him to make sure there are no small children in the room to hear the tale, the entire book demonstrates an amazing faith in kids’ guts, brains, and hearts—not only that they can understand and appreciate such strong stuff, but that they are brave enough to take it, worthy to enjoy it, and keen to learn from it. Some parents may not agree that their little ones are ready to experience full-strength Grimm (let alone Shakespeare, as Gidwitz’s students have done). But if they read this book, they might be won over.
Parents should take the narrator’s advice, however, and read the book themselves before sharing it with their kids. Not only will this enable them to judge whether it is right for them, but it will also prepare them to discuss it. I would be the last person to suggest censorship of any kind, but I generally believe parents are the best judge of what is good for their children, and I think Mr. Gidwitz is with me on this. On the other hand, I predict that a parent pre-reading this book will be impressed by what it has to offer—including lessons in courage, forgiveness, sacrifice, and endurance. As strange and perhaps excessively violent as the stories are, they also carry deep insights into human nature. And their blend of familiar fairy-tale structures with new and thrilling details may result in a fresh wave of interest in the original tales of Grimm.
To start with, Hansel and Gretel are the twin children of the King and Queen of Grimm. The reason they end up nibbling on a house made of cake, and nearly getting baked and eaten by a crazy baker lady, is different from what you have heard. They’ve run away from the castle after the main events of the story of Faithful Johannes, a servant who sacrificed everything to serve his king—even to the point of facing execution for treason. They don’t understand the bit where their parents cut their heads off, though the part that ought to bemuse them is how their heads got stuck back on.
And so they go out into the wild, wonderful world, looking for a better family. But all they find are folks like the crazy baker lady—or a man who curses his seven sons so that they turn into swallows—or a forest that brings out the animal in Hansel—or a handsome young sorcerer who steals girls’ souls and eats their bodies—or a father who gambles away his son in a bet with the devil. They go through death and transfiguration, the loss of a finger, heartbreak after heartbreak, and finally hell itself. And when they return home, it is only to face a terrifying dragon.
These stories—some familiar, some all but forgotten today—dovetail together amazingly well, bringing out old patterns in new shapes, new details against a familiar background, and a compelling overall structure. In his pauses to address the reader personally, the narrator sometimes veers uncomfortably close to sermonizing, but not so close that his point misses its target. In spite of a just slightly tiresome overuse of a running joke on the words “The End,” and the authorial asides’ unintended resemblance to the italicized parts of The Princess Bride (which one tends to skip after the first reading), it’s a richly satisfying book that will not only thrill and chill young readers, but may also provoke fruitful thought and character-building. You may even wish more Grimm tales could have been included. But that’s all right. There is already a companion book, titled In a Glass Grimmly; while a third book, The Grimm Conclusion, comes out in October 2013.