Hansel and Gretel run away from the parents who have betrayed them, only to suffer and struggle through a series of dark and violent adventures that will later become Grimm’s fairy tales. As they live through the stories, the children grow up, coming to terms with the unfairness of the world and with the accidental and purposeful cruelty in themselves and in others.
Theme: “. . . in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.”
Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)
1. This book made me laugh out loud: 1. No belly laughs here; this is serious stuff. It’s a fairytale for real. There are murdering parents, two serial killers (including a cannibal), many deaths, a soul sold to the Devil, and a trip to Hell. The writer warns you in the beginning about the violence, cruelty, blood, and gore. Throughout the book, he stops the story every now and then to tell you what’s coming, which should help you make it through if you’re a sensitive person. He tells you when you get to the sad part, for example, and explains that things will get better, although “not quite yet.”
The writer does have a sense of humor and a sense of irony, and some parts of some scenes may make you smile, so I have given it a 1 rather than a zero. Don’t expect to chuckle your way through this book, though.
2. This book has good action: 5. The story is a series of fairy tales, each one a chapter, stacked one after the other to make a novel. There’s violent action (and a message) in every chapter, and a larger story and message span the length of the book. Each individual tale matches or exceeds the original Grimm’s tale in darkness and violence, and if you’ve read the originals, you’ll know this is saying something. All the stories involve one or both of the siblings, and the unsettling effect of the book intensifies as story piles on story and the children’s circumstances go from bad to worse until one of them is literally in Hell.
3. This book is suspenseful: 5. It’s suspenseful even if you know the original fairytales, because the author retells a number of Grimm’s original fairy tales as the adventures of Hansel and Gretel, who have run away from home after their father tries to kill them. In fact, their father actually does kill them, but they come back to life. You’ll have to read the book to see how.
4. The ending does not disappoint: 5. Excellent, clever ending, that wraps the whole plot up neatly. This writer is one smart cookie. I am truly surprised that this book didn’t win a serious literary award. Or maybe it did. I will have to check the writer’s website after I finish writing this review. Anyway, if it didn’t, it should have.
5. I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 4. It’s important for readers NOT to care about these characters one hundred percent flat out, because if we did, we might not make it through the book. Fortunately, the writer uses an old-fashioned fairy tale narrator’s voice to put some distance between us and Hansel and Gretel. That way there’s a little insulation between us and the raw horror and heartbreak while reading, like the protection firefighters get when they wear those special suits in burning buildings.
1. How old is the main character? The writer never says how old these two characters are, but they’re not teenagers yet. My guess is somewhere between eight and twelve.
2. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? No, but there is a brother-and-sister team.
3. Is this a series or just one book? Something in between a series and an individual book. I just checked Amazon.com and see that the author has written another book. It’s about Jack and Jill and I expect it’s just as bloody as this one.
4. Does it get off to a fast start? Fast enough. There’s a nice hook in the beginning to reel you in so you are patient through the next few pages of background information you have to read before the first heads are chopped off.
5. Is there at least one nice grownup? Gretel meets a nice widow at one point, who takes Gretel in and tries to protect her. However, even the nice widow can’t stop bad stuff from happening to Gretel, because Gretel disobeys the widow, goes straight into the dark wood, and lands smack dab in the trap of a serial killer. In this book, when the grownups don’t actually cause the kids trouble, the kids go out and find the trouble for themselves.
6. Does it get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? There is no mush, but at one point, Gretel develops a crush. She doesn’t pick a nice guy, and when she goes to visit him, she barely escapes with her life.
1. What’s the major source of suspense? You’ll wonder how Hansel will come back to life after being killed a second time, whether and how Gretel will escape the serial killer who rips girl’s souls from their bodies and eats the corpses for supper, and how Hansel will escape from Hell. You’ll wonder a lot of other things, too, but most of all, you’ll wonder how the writer will bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. (I think he succeeds, and it’s a surprisingly happy ending, too.)
2. Which classic fantasy elements does the book contain? All the traditional fairytale elements, including the extreme bloody violence.
3. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? The book doesn’t deal with tolerance and empathy, exactly. It’s about Hansel and Gretel’s journey toward coming to terms with the gigantic imperfections of their parents, other grownups . . . and themselves. Don’t be misled into thinking the book is about a journey towards forgiveness, though. Instead, it’s about learning to living with what they and others have done and how they move on from there.
In a nutshell, you could say it’s about growing up the hard way, and I guess there really is no other way to grow up. No matter how gentle your upbringing or nice the circumstances, you’re always going to get smacked upside the head by life somehow. There’s just no stopping it.
4. Is there profanity or violence? I don’t remember any profanity, but there’s violence from the foundation to the attic in this story—everything from cannibalistic serial killers to sinners tortured by Demons in Hell, where the Devil has an easy chair made of human skin.
My suggestion is to read this book yourself before reading it to your kids. If my son were still a middle-grade reader, I would have read the book out loud to him or at least tested the beginning on him to see how he took it. That way, we could stop if he wanted and discuss stuff that bothered him or that he didn’t understand. One of the reasons I’d feel OK about reading this book to my son, though, is that he would have a context for the books because we read Andrew Lang’s fairy books together—well, I read them and he listened—from the time my son was about eight. Perhaps I should note that although he is now a teenager, my son was definitely affected by the stories in Andrew Lang’s books. He still shakes his head over the one in which everyone just died in the end.
Every child and every parent is different, though. The omniscient narrator point of view gives the readers some much-needed emotional distance from the story, but there are still some scenes in which the narrator drops into close third person, and these hit you in Technicolor and Dolby Surround. They might be tough for an impressionable person, especially a very young one. An example is the scene in which Gretel, in hiding, watches a handsome young man on whom she has a crush drag a girl down the stairs into his basement by her hair. As the girl struggles, he shoves his hand down her throat, rips out her soul and cages it, chops the girl’s corpse into pieces (the blade falls graphically), and order his mother (whom he has shackled to the stove) to cook the dead girl for dinner. You get the idea.
5. How about mature themes? The whole book has a mature theme: growing up and coming to terms with the unfairness of the world and the accidental and purposeful cruelties of strangers and those close to you, especially your parents. There is also a point about spotting evil like “where’s Waldo”: seeing things for what they really are, of seeing and dealing with the evil that sometimes lives beside us, and perhaps even inside those two whom we are closest.
Has the author handled these mature themes in a way appropriate to middle-grade readers? I’m not sure. If I got this book for my middle grader, I’d want to be along for the journey. I’d read it out loud to him or her. But that’s just me.
6. Dark creatures? They abound. Readers will meet demons and the Devil, sinners great and small, murderous parents, a cannibalistic warlock, and a slimy evil mini-dragon that lives inside a character, possessing him and turning him into a monster that murderers swathes of people.
7. What’s the take on religion and/or God in the book? God doesn’t manifest in the book, but his opposite number is present in force. Hell is a real place where sinners (and some relative innocents, like Hansel) are punished in vats of boiling something-or-other by demons. Hansel must outwit the Devil to escape from Hell.
8. What about politics and government? Hansel and Gretel live in a monarchy, and their father is the king of one of the kingdoms. I don’t think the monarchy in this book is one you could discuss as a form of national government. On the other hand, you could talk about it as a symbol for the power structure in a family. And you could discuss how what happens in the Kingdom of Grimm’s monarchy mirrors what happens in families as children grow up and balances of power shift.
9. Any gender issues whack you in the eye? Well sort of. Hansel and Gretel fall victim to gender-specific kinds of foolish behavior they must overcome to continue on their journey through the world. Hansel becomes a terrible, monstrous, environmentally destructive hunter, and Gretel falls in love with the wrong man, to put it mildly. I liked these aspects of book, but some readers might think the writer is gender-stereotyping.
10. Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child? I think you will want to discuss every single individual chapter in this book with your child, or even with your teenager. In other words, there are too many important themes in this book for me to take them up in this review:
- abuse of the environment
- children who rebel against authority figures
- the flawed nature of every authority figure
- the question of whether people can reform
- the question of whether and how people who commit horrible offenses against other people are or are not punished for what they do
- and more–at least one theme per chapter.
11. Is the book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? The language in the book isn’t especially challenging, but the content of the book is quite challenging.
12. How’s the writing? Solid. I think this writer will win awards, if he hasn’t already.
13. Might some people be upset by the spelling or grammar? No, but perhaps by the violence. It’s truthy violence, though: stuff that really happens but is taken to a fairy tale level to make it more easily readable, digestible, and discussable for those of us who prefer to handle the world’s burning hot awfulness with the allegorical oven mitts of Once Upon a Time.