Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman

cover image

Ill. by Lorenzo Mattotti. Bloomsbury, 2014. ISBN 9781408861981
(Age: 10+) Highly recommended. Fairy tale, Witchcraft, Graphic novel. With brooding black and white illustrations covering every second double page, the familiar text between is permeated with ominous dread as the children are duped into going into the forest with their parents. There they are left, the first time finding their way back home using small white stones dropped to show them the way, and the second time using breadcrumbs which when eaten by the birds, leaves them stranded. They discover a gingerbread house in which lives an old woman who cages Hansel to fatten him up to eat, forcing Gretel to cook and clean the house for her. But she eventually outwits the old woman, killing her, releasing Hansel and so finding their their way back home.
Gaiman has added to the original story, ensuring that modern readers will equate the situation of the woodcutter and his family to the plight of many children living with war in our world. Famine forces the family to make this appalling decision, and today's readers will have seen instances on television news of families deciding to send their children to another country in the hope of keeping them alive or children sold into slavery to save the remainder of the family.
The illustrations are outstanding, shadowing the story with an overwhelming feeling of disquiet. The black threatening forest wraps the pages, highlighting the small figures of Hansel and Gretel, easily overshadowed by its ominous presence.
This is a book to read and reread, to ponder and discuss. It will send readers back to the original story and its many rewritings, and encourage readers to discuss the different versions available. An article on Wikipedia will help here, and it is worth the while to check library shelves to find other versions which can be read aloud and shared with the class.
And Gaiman includes an outline of the history of the story and its retellings at the end of the tale which adds another level of interest and information. In reading this with a class, it maybe helpful to encourage children to share what they know of the story before this version is read, so there is some common understandings of what the story is about, and when it was originally written, and readers will clearly see the additions and changes made by successive authors. This book is an absolute treat.
Fran Knight