They may be as old as time, but folk and fairy tales continue to flourish in popular culture, regularly revisited, reinterpreted, and reimagined through a perpetual parade of picture books and novels, movies and television offerings, and even video games. Blending modern-day sensibilities with an avid appreciation for the source material and an endless knack for inventiveness, two novels by Adam Gidwitz, A Tale Dark & Grimm (2010) and In a Glass Grimmly (2012, both Dutton; Gr 3 Up), make sound starting points for examinations of folklore. Each volume stars a pair of intrepid young protagonists who set off on a quest of self-discovery only to encounter sinister adults, frightening monsters, and shocking situations. Filled with lots of breathless action, droll humor, and, well, blood, both books offer readers a riveting roller coaster ride that speeds through familiar plots, revels in the original tales’ harrowing hairpin turns, and plunges right into the essence of these timeless stories.
The Kingdom of Grimm
Addressing readers directly through entertaining, often elucidating asides, the narrator introduces A Tale Dark & Grimm with an invitation to youngsters to sample fairy tales in their true unadulterated and thoroughly “awesome” wonder. As he explains, “…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.” After wryly recommending that the room be cleared of small children, Gidwitz proceeds to tell the “real” story of Hansel and Gretel, a yarn that winds throughout Grimm’s “moldy, mysterious tome…like a trail of bread crumbs winding through a forest,” dipping in and out of stories both familiar and less-well-known.
The two youngsters step into the role of the siblings in “Faithful Johannes,” beheaded (and later re-headed) by their father, a guilt-ridden king desperate to restore the life of his loyal servant; run away (wouldn’t you?) into the “wide, wild world” in search of parents who would not kill their children, end up the prisoners of a cannibalistic baker woman, and just barely make their escape; and then wend their way through a masterfully interwoven tapestry of other danger-fraught scenarios based on “The Seven Ravens,” “Little Brother and Little Sister,” “The Robber Bridegroom,” and “The Three Golden Hairs.” Separated and reunited, repeatedly tested yet steadfastly triumphant, honed by moments of self-sacrifice and displays of incredible valor, the two return home, where they must face the horrors of a rampaging dragon as well as the attentions of their rather clueless parents.
Hansel and Gretel’s adventures unwind with taut suspense, clever twists and turns, grisly details, and laugh-out-loud humor, making the book a captivating classroom read-aloud. Themes worthy of discussion or written reflections include the role and responsibilities of parents, the importance of forgiveness, finding a place to call home, and the protagonists’ journeys toward wisdom (have your students explore these themes by citing examples from the text). At book’s end, the siblings recount all of their experiences to their parents, tales that are then relayed by servants (named Wilhelm and Jacob) to the rapt inhabitants of the kingdom of Grimm. Introduce the real Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm and their efforts to collect and record German folklore (their first volume of stories was published 200 year ago). Discuss the tradition of oral storytelling. As an example, have your students delve into family lore by interviewing older relatives, and retelling to the class or recording in writing favorite family stories.
Gidwitz deftly, and for the most part faithfully, incorporates Grimm’s folktales into the plot. Help students identify the featured tales, seek out traditional versions, and make comparisons. Discuss how the author reinterprets the stories and why he chooses to emphasize particular elements while discarding others. What modern touches has Gidwitz added to the mix? How is the author’s narrative tone different from that of a more traditional fairytale? How do Hansel and Gretel compare to their once-upon-a-time counterparts? Have your students try their own hand at creative storytelling by choosing two tales, brainstorming ways to connect the plots and characters, and writing or storyboarding their own renditions.
A Visit to Märchen
In the afterword for In a Glass Grimmly, Gidwitz explains that the sources that inspired this companion volume were “Kunstmärchen, or ‘original’ fairy tales—tales that were invented by a known author, like Hans Christian Andersen or Christina Rossetti.” Thus, though this book echoes the framework and narrative tone of the first offering—and still incorporates references to Grimm tales and the work of other “story-weavers”—much of the material is original, and the plot soars with the author’s quick-witted inventiveness. In a kingdom called Märchen live two cousins. Jill is the daughter of a self-obsessed, mirror-gazing queen, and though the woman is so full of pride and lacking in parenting skills that she actually allows her daughter to unknowingly parade naked before their subjects (à la “The Emperor’s New Clothes”), Jill still longs for her mother’s approval. Jack, a kindhearted dreamer, is unappreciated by his practical-minded father and cruelly bullied by the malicious village boys he so desperate wants to impress.
Fed up, the children run away together and are joined by a talking one-legged frog (whose own past includes a golden ball and a self-obsessed at-that-time princess). Promised their true heart’s desires by a mysterious and somewhat shady old woman, they set off in search of a magical looking glass lost long ago, trying not to obsess too much about the fact that if they fail, they forfeit their very lives. In addition to a head-breaking tumble down a hill, their ensuing quest includes a fast-growing bean stalk, a gang of surly, not-too-smart giants, an encounter with a tantalizing mermaid, a visit to the goblin realm, a gargantuan fire-belching salamander, and more, as well as hard-won revelations about themselves and the true magic that lies within the mirror (when finally translated at book’s end, the glass’s inscription reads, “To find what ye seek, look no further”). Once again, the heroes are kid-like and courageous, the action is cleverly constructed and death-defying, the telling is hilarious, the gross-outs colorfully described and numerous, and the message enlightening and empowering.
Jack and Jill end up telling their tales to an audience of spellbound children (including one little boy named Hans Christian and another called Joseph or J.J., as in Jacobs), reminding readers of the origins—and power—of the novel’s source material. Have students highlight familiar plot elements and characters and identify, read, and compare the stories (or nursery rhymes, or other works) from which they come (Gidwitz cites several specific sources in the afterword). Read a literary fairy tale, such Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” discuss the author’s tone and narrative style, and make comparisons to traditional fairy tales. Invite students to author their own literary fairy tales, inspired by stories that they have read or spun entirely from their own imaginations.
Resources Dark & Grimm
Expanded and updated in a new bicentennial edition, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (Norton, 2012) collects uncensored versions of more than 40 tales. Translated and edited by scholar Maria Tatar, the stories are written to reflect the spirit of the originals, and the accessible language and lyrical tellings make them appropriate for reading aloud. Thoughtful annotations provide commentary on the tales’ themes and meanings, make comparisons to versions from different cultures, explain literary and historical allusions, and highlight language usage offering insights for literary studies with more advanced students. Handsome full-color illustrations by artists such as Arthur Rackham, Walter Crane, and Kay Nielson provide a glimpse into past interpretations of these tales. The volume ends with a biographical essay about the Grimms and a section of thought-provoking passages from a variety of writers and thinkers about the power of fairy tales. Ranging from quotes from J. R. R. Tolkien and Bruno Bettelheim to a quip from Mae West (“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted”), these excerpts could serve as discussion starters or writing prompts. A solid resource for teachers, older students, and library shelves.
A detailed lesson plan for A Tale Dark & Grimm is available for downloading at the publisher’s website. Authored by two classroom teachers and aligned to Common Core Standards (Grade 4-5), this educator’s guide incorporates week-by-week guided and independent reading activities and includes vocabulary-based exercises, comprehension questions to help students demonstrate their mastery of the text, and an exploration of various tools utilized by the author.
Expand your students’ investigations to kid-accessible web resources. Adam Gidwitz’s website provides atmospheric video trailers for both titles, a brief author autobiography, a fun-to-browse personal photo gallery, FAQs (“Did You Want to Be a Writer as a Kid?,” or “Can You Explain Your Strange Narrator?”), and blog posts. Grabbing viewers with an enticing introduction, a National Geographic “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” website presents 12 “unvarnished” tales based on a 1914 translation. Kids can choose the story by subject matter (“tell me a tale about…a wicked stepmother” or “…a young girl who…”) or from a list of titles, and four of the offerings are available with an audio option. Youngsters can also click on an image of the Grimms to access a timeline. A treasure chest icon (opened with a skeleton key) reveals a menu that includes a well-written magazine article (from the December 1999 issue) about the lives, work, inspirations, and impact of these “Guardians of the Fairy Tale.” An activity option reveals colorful character images that can be printed out and used to make Popsicle puppets (students can create their own interpretations of traditional tales or mix and match to fashion their own original works for a story theater) or incorporated into comic-strip adaptations.
Need help locating unadulterated versions of the Grimms’ tales for comparison to Gidwitz’s renditions? A large selection of stories complied and translated by retired University of Pittsburgh professor D.L. Ashliman can be found at his website. Also, consider expanding your investigations further into the world of fractured fairy tales. Click here for a round up of “Folk and Fairy Tales Retold” and other resources.
The activities suggested above reference the following Common Core State Standards:
RL. 4.2. Determine a theme of a story…from details in the text.
RL. 5.6. Describe how a narrator’s point of view influences how events are described.
RL. 5.9. Compare and contrast stories in the same genre on their approaches to similar themes and topics.
RL. 6.9. Compare and contrast texts ind different forms or genres…in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.
RI. 3.9. Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic.
W. 4.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
SL. 4.1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions.
RI.6.7 Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually quantitatively)…to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.
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