A Tale Dark & Grimm takes several familiar and a nice variety of less familiar Grimm fairy tales and links them together, casting Hansel and Gretel as the main characters in all of them. The premise is that these seemingly unconnected tales are actually all parts of one story. The author is also very straightforward about fairy tales not being for little kids—contrary to all the movies you’ve seen, the Grimm fairy tales aren’t fully of cute talking animals and sappy songs. They’re full of gore and death and blood and violence—in other words, they’re full of awesome!
Staying true to his promise, the book is full of blood and gore and violence and death, but it also has a very healthy dose of humor and speaking directly to the reader, which helps counteract some of that. We’re continually reminded to remove small children from the room, to check behind chairs because sometimes small children hide when you want them to leave, and we really can’t have them reading this scary stuff. He routinely interrupts the story, offers multiple endings, and gives huge hints of what kinds of things the reader should expect.
I found it clever and amusing, and I appreciated the more obscure tales that the author dragged out. And yes—when you read the originals, the amount of gore and casual eating of children and cutting off of body parts is kind of jarring.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
You’ve been warned. A lot. The book is full of violence, as are the fairy tales it’s based on. Hansel and Gretel’s father cuts off their heads (in this story they’re a prince and princess). They get better, and then decide maybe they should go find a family where cutting off heads seems like a less viable option.
Gretel cuts off her own finger. It’s considered a worthy sacrifice. She doesn’t get better—she’s missing a finger for the rest of the book. But at least she got her head back!
Hansel starts turning into a beast—he hunts animals for fun, eventually killing a fawn, and he truly becomes a beast himself. And then a hunter kills him. And later he’s served at a duke’s feast, except that when they rather graphically skin the beast, they find a naked, bloodstained, and still alive Hansel inside. After that, he’s much less beastly.
Another character likes to steal girls’ souls which he puts into birds—he has quite the collection. Then he cuts up their bodies for stew. Once people figure out what he does, they boil him in oil with poisonous snakes until he’s dead.
After a battle with a dragon, the many bodies are fairly graphically described.
The moon eats children, although Gretel tricks it into eating the dragon.
For relatively legitimate reasons, Hansel and Gretel behead their father. Then Gretel heals him. It all comes full circle.
Most of the time, Hansel and Gretel are decent to each other, and when they’re separated, they both want nothing more than to be back together.
Parental types, on the other hand, are all kinds of problematic. They behead children, they eat children, they inadvertently wish their children into birds, etc. After wandering the world looking for a decent family that won’t try to kill them, Hansel and Gretel end up back at home.
Their mother doesn’t participate in any of the beheadings, but she seems shockingly ok with everyone’s reasoning for why they keep removing heads. Of course, by the time she hears about it, they’ve always already gotten better.
OK, so most adults are at least incompetent. But Gretel, who’s twelve years old, becomes enamored with a charming adult man. He flirts with her and subtly punishes her by removing his attention when she doesn’t do what he wants. He asks her to come to his house, and she fights with the mother-figure she’s currently living with and ends up going. Of course, this is the guy who steals girls’ souls and then eats their bodies (subtle enough for you?). Gretel outwits him, escapes him, and then takes her revenge—which results in the whole boiling in oil with snakes bit.
The author explicitly talks to the reader about times that we have made stupid decisions to impress people we think are cool—we should take warning from Gretel’s story, but we should not think ourselves above her or any wiser than she is.
Both kids make some spectacularly bad decisions, but they also learn how to grow and make up for those decisions. Their growth helps them succeed. Gretel gets more clever as the story goes on, learning to see the truth in things. Hansel stops being so selfish, and he grows from the pain and guilt he’s gone through because of how he abandoned Gretel. In fact, he later survives actual Hell because undeserved misery and torture doesn’t hold a candle to well deserved guilt, which he’s already survived.
In the end, Hansel and Gretel save their kingdom and become king and queen, because sometimes a kingdom really needs its children. (Plus, in the end, they’re really about the only reasonable people in the book.) But the book is very explicit about the value of children, even if adults sometimes don’t see it.
The Devil is an actual character. He lives in Hell with his mom. Hansel ends up there, where he sees lots of characters from the other stories, all suffering immensely in their fully deserved Hells. But Hansel is there on a quest, not because he’s condemned. Like many tricksters before him, he fools the Devil into revealing how to defeat him. If you’ve taught your child that Hell is a very real and specific kind of place, this may not fit with what you’ve been teaching.
So, lots of people die violent deaths. But it’s the death of Old Johannes that stands out, because after accompanying Hansel on a quest, after serving Hansel’s father and grandfather and who knows how many other generations, the old man simply gives out. Hansel stays with him while he dies. It’s sad and quiet and fitting.
There are several explicit lessons in the book, but one is about under-standing vs. understanding. To truly under-stand someone, you have to do a lot more than comprehend what they’re saying. It’s about truly supporting someone, standing under them to help them do whatever they need to do. It’s a recurring theme in the book.
Immersed in fairy tale books, I’m realizing how many explicitly shut boys out. So this one stands out by stopping just short of being explicitly targeted at boys. It’s funny in a dark kind of way, so it’s not necessarily for all readers. It’s sarcastic and irreverent and slightly rude to small children and not particularly kind to adults and I think my son is going to love it.
If your kid enjoys the tone of A Series of Unfortunate Events or The Name of This Book Is Secret, this will probably be a fun read—perhaps I should say, if you think your kid will enjoy those books, because the reading level on this one is lower, and therefore suitable for younger or less experienced readers. It’s good for maybe 9 or 10 and up, assuming the content sounds amusing instead of horrifying. It’s probably good for reluctant readers.