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Here are two different versions of the classic fairy tale that I read over and over again as a child. There’s something so captivating about “Hansel & Gretel.” (155 BOOKS come up in a simple Amazon search for the title in children’s literature.)
The forest, the wonderful candy house, the terrible witch. Oh and the children’s woodcutter father, sad and dark and conflicted.
There’s the indelible bond of these siblings too, a boy and girl, not unlike the characters in The Snow Queen.
This version has a classic feel and is well-suited for younger readers. Despite the disturbing nature of the familiar tale, there’s a sense that all will be well, that children are meant to be loved and cherished and looked after and, ultimately, they will be. Not to worry, Hansel and Gretel will prevail by way of love and ingenuity and their own strength.
From the beginning:
“Inside a stone cottage in a green forest, a young brother and young sister—Hansel and Gretel—lived with their father and their stepmother. Their real mother had died.
“The family was very poor, for the father had been ill and unable to work for their bread. They were down to their last loaf.”
“The new wife was very bitter about this. She had expected to be taken care of, and now here she was, nearly starving.”
“She decided to blame the children.”
And thus the familiar story begins.
The talented Jen Corace has provided storybook, rustic illustrations, only updated in a way that feels fresh and contemporary enough to pop off the page. Her textiles are especially bright and colorful. (Love the cherries on one of Gretel’s sweaters!)
This is a story with lessons for children, and not cloying ones. Real lessons. Hard lessons. Lessons of their own wisdom and resilience despite dangers.
Images via JenCorace.com.
This newer version (someday to be a film) is a darker take. So so so very dark and definitely suited for slightly older readers.
The full-spread illustrations are in solely black and white. Inky, scary, hard to decipher. It was, in fact, Mattotti’s artwork from an exhibit at The Metropolitan Opera that inspired Gaiman’s story.
From the beginning:
“There was a woodcutter. He cut down trees. He chopped the branches off the trees, and he cut the trunks and branches into logs for firewood, which he would haul on a handcart to the nearest path into the town. It was hungry work, cutting trees.”
Gaiman’s version has more text and goes further in inventing backstory. In his rendering, there has been a war and with it everything fell apart for everyone. In his version, the stepmother is changed to mother too, another more sinister choice, but one true to the original tale.
I think what appealed to me as a child about “Hansel and Gretel” and what still appeals to children (all of us) in fairy tales is the darkness. Others have spoken eloquently about this (including, of course Neil Gaiman). For me, there was such a familiarity to the story though not in the specific details of course. But in the idea that something might lie beneath the surface. Something scary, to be wise about. Because if you know it’s there, in a way, you’ve already conquered it.
Images via Toon Books and elsewhere.
I thoroughly enjoyed both these versions and each has its own place with the right audience, in the right hands, with the right voice reading the words aloud.