I first encountered this book at “Guys Lit Wire” blog. It looked intriguing, and knowing that N is a fan of Grimm’s work I picked it up for her. She read it and immediately insisted that she read it to me.
A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz.
Dutton Children’s Books, 2010.
256 pages, hardcover.
“Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome,” Adam Gidwitz tells the reader before beginning A Tale Dark & Grimm. He laments alongside his audience that the changes the Grimm fairy tales have become “mind-numbing boring.” Who wants to hear tales that are boring? Or hardly revelatory? He suggests that perhaps we have come to underestimate the bloodier and more sinister aspects to the Tales and a child’s ability to handle them. I can’t say I disagree. Of course, to each their own, and Gidwitz does warn the reader…
“Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in The Tales of Grimm, is as violent and blo0y as you can imagine.”
So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.
You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.
And, of course, the most blood.”
Words of warning are sprinkled throughout the novel. Obviously, the cautions only intrigue the Reader further. It works beautifully in adding tension and gripping suspense. And it delivers. Gidwitz is not lying or over exaggerating his warnings. When the narrator warns that the next part is going to be gruesome, it is. I do not have a terribly weak stomach and there were parts where I was completely grossed out. And then there is the horror. Really, it was fantastic.
And is it all gratuitous? No. Grimm though. And well-delivered.
Gidwitz chooses the familiar characters of Hansel and Gretel and weaves Grimm stories around them and into a 251 page novel. The Tale Dark & Grimm is told in a series of shorter tales. And each tale begins charmingly enough with a “Once upon a time.” There is a narrator telling the story, one who regularly interacts with the audience*. And while I am reticent to play along with such cleverness, Gidwitz proves fantastic wit and timing.
“You’re being foolish,” Gretel told herself. “Rain can’t talk.”
[narrator:] No, of course it can’t. The moon can eat children, and fingers can open doors, and people’s heads can be put back on.
But rain? Talk? Don’t be ridiculous.
Good thinking, Gretel dear. Good thinking. (97)
The narrator anticipates the reader rather nicely. We were echoing the sentiments before we’d read them. And when we mocked the characters, the narrator was right there with us. And yet—the narrator is much more compassionate a voice, wonderfully parental in the teaching points aka life lessons. “A Smile as Red as Blood,” 85-113, has a wonderful example (and is perhaps my favorite tale in this book). Just as you find Gretel at the height of her ridiculousness (which is quite astounding at this point) the narrator interjects on her behalf (98-9). I would share but I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.
The point the Gidwitz makes in A Tale Dark & Grimm is that the Tales have incredible value in the messages they relay. Many of the characters are ridiculous—ridiculously human. Adults needn’t the narrators little revelations about the human condition and the flaws of which we’re capable; though they are humorously delivered. Gidwitz also doesn’t claim to understand everything (if anything) that goes on in the Tales. It isn’t just that he wisely avoids trying to explain the presence of evil either. To the questions of Why certain things have happened near the end of the story on page 237, the narrator repeatedly answers, “I don’t know.” The questions are acknowledged, and as previously noted, it is evident that A Tale Dark & Grimm likes the conversation, the interrogation of the Tales of Grimm and the world that existed then and the world that exists now—and where children fit into it all. Hansel and Gretel do not calmly accept the world as it is. They question it, and fight for a place in it. They would not sell themselves short, nor would the novel.
While A Tale Dark & Grimm is not solely for children, despite its middle-grade reader status, the Children Will Lead Them ending will be quite empowering for the younger set. Teachers will likely cheer. For another adult, it just reminds them they were, in fact, reading a middle-grade novel. Continue on and read the Acknowledgments and see a bit of yourself there and appreciate Gidwitz a bit more.
There is a somewhat happy ending. A sense of healing the Reader will likely desire. Its difficulty is wisely acknowledged, and I like that the narrator isn’t for easy forgiveness. For an age group that is constantly underestimated, Gidwitz proves a balm. He is humorous, which is great, but he is also serious.
A Tale Dark & Grimm is a brilliant reintroduction to the older Tales for the younger set. I believe it is recommended 10 & up and I think this is a safe bet. It is bloody and adventurous and comedic and sad; it is difficult and charming. Read A Tale Dark & Grimm in the morning hours and/or with a barf bag on hand if necessary. Read the novel aloud with someone, regardless.
It was disgusting. It was enormous. From below, one could see the outline of its head, broad and viperlike. It looked nothing like the dragons in storybooks.
[narrator:] Not even the dragon on the cover of this book, dear reader.
Go ahead, take a look.
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. (195-6)
A Tale Dark & Grimm is a lovely read for lovers of fairy tales; especially for those who lament the loss of the macabre and the overt violence in more contemporary retellings.
I must reiterate, that I do think Gidwitz’s warnings are not wholly a device**. I think that if some of the early renderings of violence or gore bother you dear reader, it does only become worse further into the novel. This is not to compel you, but to truly ask you to not harm yourself. And if A Tale Dark & Grimm is about as much as you could take, wait awhile on the Grimms’ own work until later.
*Though the narrator’s voice is obvious in a read-aloud, in print it is visually bold-print and spaced apart from the other text—a nice format.
**It may be to cover his hiney, though; you were duly warned.
I consider this read part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge (V).