Hansel and Gretel

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  • Hansel & Gretel
  • written/adapted by Neil Gaiman
  • illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti
  • published by Toon Books (Candlewick Press) (2014)
  • Roar Score: 5/5

They reached a river, and their father showed them where to ford it, where the river was shallow and the rocks stuck up from the water. They shook off their shoes, and they carried them until they reached the far bank, where the trees were thick, and old, and gnarled into shapes that looked like angry giants, frozen in time.

“Hansel and Gretel” is one of those stories that seems older than time. It is one of the most recognized of the Grimms’ fairy tales, yet it still remains unfamiliar. Elusive. Intangible.

Perhaps that’s because there have been so many different versions over the years. Tamer versions that smooth over some of the “unpleasant” aspects of the original. Children’s versions that soften the witch into someone more likable or change the parents’ roles entirely. Modern Hollywood versions that imagine the title characters as badass monster hunters.

Ask most kids nowadays, and their impression of the story more than likely centers on the witch’s candy house. “Hansel and Gretel” has, through the years, become known as a lighthearted romp through the woods to a Willy Wonka-style candy house.

Leave it to master storyteller Neil Gaiman, then, to bring us back to the story’s dark, gruesome, and haunting roots.

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This book has its origins in a 2007 art exhibit designed to coincide with a Metropolitan Opera performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s version of the story. Lorenzo Mattotti created a series of paintings for that exhibit, which were the inspiration for Gaiman to write a new version of the tale.

(Those pieces are the illustrations that appear in this book. In a twist on the usual order of things, the words followed the pictures.)

And what a version Gaiman has delivered—worthy of a spot on anyone’s reading list. It should also be required reading for all children both as a primer to the fairy tale genre and as a paragon text in the art of concise and effective storytelling.

The book runs a slim 49 pages, and the text alternates with Mattotti’s illustrations set across full two-page spreads. But Gaiman manages to pack an envious amount of story, characterization, emotion, and imagery into his 22 pages of text.

I read the entire book to my daughter at bedtime, and (even at 5) she clung to absolutely every word. It was impossible for me to read the story aloud and not hear Gaiman’s voice narrating, and my daughter—who was only tangentially aware of the original tale—sat with rapt attention.

The illustrations are marvelous and menacing all at once. At first, they might appear to be chaotic brushstrokes with no rhyme or reason, but upon inspection, a whole world opens up within them. We found ourselves poring over the illustrations for almost as much time as it took to read the alternating pages of text.

Imagine the eeriest possible game of I Spy.

It’s also interesting to note that the illustrations slowly “open up” and become less abstract as the story goes on. The first few pictures are almost entirely black, with only a few abstract shapes and images to cling to. This, I’m sure, is by design—meant to represent the chaotic and uncertain nature of Hansel and Gretel’s life.

By the end of the story, when the children have seized control of those controlling them and reversed the tide of their misfortune, the illustrations open up with white space and more concrete imagery.

“Hansel and Gretel” is, by all accounts, a horrific and disturbing story to read to children. However, if there’s one author who’s up to the task, it’s the guy who wrote a children’s book about a boy living in a graveyard and being raised by its ghostly inhabitants (The Graveyard Book, winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal).

Almost any story would be in good hands with Neil Gaiman, but he seems especially well suited to the task of bringing an unsettling yet faithful “Hansel and Gretel” to today’s children.

Hansel & Gretel is an unflinching and refreshing take on children’s literature. Kudos are due not only to Gaiman and Mattotti but also to Françoise Mouly and everyone else at Toon Books responsible for bringing this beautiful little book to life.

We give this book the highest possible marks and recommend it for everyone old enough to sit still long enough to listen to it.

And may it give you the loveliest possible nightmares.

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(Many thanks to Candlewick Press, who provided The Roarbots with an advance review copy of this book.)

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