Once upon a time, someone decided that fairy tales were just for babies, and everyone suffered as a result. Recently, thanks to writers and scholars like Neil Gaiman and Jack Zipes, we have had breakthroughs in getting fairy tales back to their morbid, non-cutesy beginnings.
In A Tale Dark and Grimm, Adam Gidwitz’s first book, readers are provided with a relatable guide through a macabre world that some guys might feel that they’ve outgrown since shedding their final pull-up diaper. Luckily, the Brothers Grimm had a few tricks up their sleeves all those years ago. Gidwitz replicates some of them here including an electrifying sense of creepiness and blood…lots of blood.
Of course you have the gingerbread house and the trail of bread crumbs, very well tread territory. But with each chapter, readers will be undoubtedly exposed to more obscure, though equally captivating tales with sinister figures and magical moments. Every chapter is a different story, but they all manage to create a single thread. The book kicks off with the tale “Faithful Johannes” where people turn into stone and a couple of severed heads lead to, believe it or not, a happy ending where everyone is safe and sound.
Those heads belong to the young Hansel and Gretel (of bizarre child culinary fame). Even though everything ended well for them post-decapitation in the first chapter, something does not sit right with the fact that they were the ones to lose their noggins. They travel the world looking for some responsible adults who will take good care of them. What they find, unfortunately, are a lot of horrid people who want to hunt them, murder them, cook them, eat them…not always in that order though.
“A Smile as Red as Blood” is another tale that deserves both recognition as well as a disclaimer to not read alone on a stormy night. It involves an ax, a butcher’s knife, and young women going exactly where they shouldn’t. Many Grimm tales are horror stories through and through. Whenever things get too bleak or desperate for our heroes, Gidwitz breaks the tension with a little aside, warning, or joke. That might annoy some readers looking to be totally immersed by what they are reading. He plays the “fake-out ending” card a dozen or so times.
Personally, I liked having the sense that someone was actually telling me these tales, rather than just reading them by myself. Fairy tales definitely benefit from the narrator making a connection to the reader in a way that other genres might not.
Eventually the two siblings are forced to fight a bone-chilling dragon that has been swallowing entire villages whole. The narrator interrupts to tell you that you’ve never seen a dragon like this in any book, not even the cover of this one.
“That dragon, you see, was designed to alert you to the presence of a dragon in these pages. What it was not designed to do is make you sick with horror and awe. So the snakelike head, the eyes with no pupils, the translucent wings – those were all left off. You’re welcome.”
Gidwitz’s take-home message is that it can be quite horrible being young, even in a world of magic. Smarts, courage, and heart are needed to survive, and it doesn’t hurt to stick together either. A Tale Dark and Grimm works well for older kids, young teens, and absolutely anyone who is interested in checking out some frightening fairy tales. If you’ve ever wanted to trick the devil or eat your weight in gingerbread house, this is your book.
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