Lately I’ve had an itch for picture books. They’re a source of brilliant illustrations, but more fascinatingly is the incredible challenge of writing a good picture book. You can bring only a handful of words and pictures to the table, so those who are skilled at using the medium are considered geniuses. If you go back to some of the literature of your childhood, I think you’d be REALLY surprised at just how witty, entertaining, and deep a kid’s book can be.
Although it’s not technically a picture book (a few too many words), one of the highlights in this journey so far has been Neil Gaiman’s telling of the classic Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by
Above are some of
Lorenzo Mattotti’s fantastic illustrations for this book. I envy the
power of those little specs of light sprinkled between all those
gigantic brush strokes. A story as dark as Hansel and Gretel deserves drawings as creepy as these ones.
Gaiman is extremely faithful to the original storyline, but is talented at pointing out just how gloomy and terrifying Hansel and Gretel really is without going too far. Everybody expects the witch to be scary, of course, but she isn’t the most harrowing part of the narrative.
In Neil’s version, he puts a strong focus on the starvation the family goes through in the beginning of the story. For a mother to rationally come to the decision to abandon her children in the middle of the woods, she has to be in an extremely dire position. The details of the hunger and desperation the family goes through in the introduction sticks with you.
With a book like this, it’s tempting to consider whether Hansel and Gretel is too scary or bleak to be read to children, but often adults are the worst at deducing what does and doesn’t fit the interest of children.
If you know the history of the Grimm fairytales, you’d know that the Brothers Grimm didn’t collect those folk tales with children in mind. Instead, they were seeking to academically archive the legends and stories of their ancestry out of fear that they’d someday be forgotten.
The brothers never imagined children would take to these stories, since these tales are often fueled by the darkest emotions and experiences that a human being can go through. But believe it or not, it was the CHILDREN who discovered these books and fell in love with their gripping and twisted storylines. The market reacted, and we’ve considered them stories for kids ever since.
So I guess my point is that we should give children more choice in the matter. Nobody knows more about what you like or dislike reading than you do — no matter what your age is. It’s hypocritical and patronizing to expect children to survive the emotional turmoil that comes with youth (and life in general), but also forcibly shy their eyes away from stories of the same subject.
Neil Gaiman, Lorenzo Mattotti, Art Spiegelman, Francoise Mouly, Paul Holdengräber and others tour the Special Collections at the New York Public Library before Gaiman’s Halloween night interview and reading of HANSEL & GRETEL, new from Toon Books.
They saw Mary Shelley’s hair and Jack Kerouac’s blood!
Written with a devastating spareness by Neil Gaiman and fearsomely illustrated in shades of black by Lorenzo Mattotti, the newest version of “Hansel and Gretel” astonishes from start to finish. It doesn’t hurt that the book itself is a gorgeous and carefully made object…. All the well-chosen detail provides an ideal backdrop for what Gaiman and Mattotti have done with the Grimm Brothers’ familiar story of the two siblings who, after being abandoned by desperate parents, outwit their witchy captor. Their rendition brings a freshness and even a feeling of majesty to the little tale. Some great, roiling essence of the human condition — our fate of shuttling between the darkness and the light — seems to inhabit its pages.
“It’s incredible how people find the strength needed to flee from war and violence, to get on a rickety boat or walk endlessly with their small children and then attempt to make a new life in another country,” the artist Lorenzo Mattotti says of “On the Way,” his cover for this week’s issue.
Some moments from the signing machine at McNally Jackson bookstore set up before the Hansel & Gretelreading with Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti started–all the books lined up & ready as the authors took the stage.
“Written with a devastating spareness by Neil Gaiman and fearsomely illustrated in shades of black by Lorenzo Mattotti, the newest version of “Hansel and Gretel” astonishes from start to finish. It doesn’t hurt that the book itself is a gorgeous and carefully made object, with a black floral motif on its pages’ decorated borders, along with abundant red drop caps and tall, round gray page numbers. ”
Written with a devastating spareness by Neil Gaiman and fearsomely illustrated in shades of black by Lorenzo Mattotti, the newest version of Hansel and Gretel astonishes from start to finish. It doesn’t hurt that the book itself is a gorgeous and carefully made object, with a black floral motif on its pages’ decorated borders, along with red drop caps and tall, round gray page numbers. (Published by Toon Books, the New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly’s venture into richly illustrated books for children, it comes in two formats, with an oversize one that includes an afterword about the evolution of the tale.) All the well-chosen detail provides an ideal backdrop for what Gaiman and Mattotti have done with the Grimm Brothers’ familiar story of the two siblings who, after being abandoned by desperate parents, outwit their witchy captor. Their rendition brings a freshness and even a feeling of majesty to the little tale. Some great, roiling essence of the human condition — our fate of shuttling between the darkness and the light — seems to inhabit its pages.
In Gaiman’s hands, the humble woodcutter’s decision to abandon his children speaks not just to the cruelty that surfaces during desperate times, but to the needless suffering and waste of war. At first, the woodcutter, his wife and their children live simply but happily. Their rural life is not romanticized — the mother can be “bitter and sharp-tongued” while the father is “sometimes sullen and eager to be away from their little home” —- but Hansel and Gretel can count on “freshly baked bread and eggs and cooked cabbage on their table.” Then war arrives, bringing soldiers, “hungry, angry, bored, scared men who, as they passed through, stole the cabbages and the chickens and the ducks.” The family’s misery is measured by their growing hunger and the emptying out of their once bustling village, until the awful choice of eliminating the children arises.
Gaiman has chosen to make the father a sympathetic, hapless character, bullied into sending the children off to their certain deaths in the woods by their mother. “It would be a monstrous thing to do, to kill our children,” the father says. “Lose them, not kill them,” the mother replies. In the Grimms’ original version, the book’s afterword explains, both parents agree that the children must be sacrificed. Then came later editions in which the mother alone is heartless, and by the mid-19th century it was a stepmother who ordered the father to get rid of the children, and that’s the way most of us today know the story. Gaiman’s middle ground strikes just the right note of horror — a mother who would kill her children seems infinitely worse than a stepmother who makes the same calculation, yet having both parents plotting to off their offspring pushes the brutality too far toward hopeless despair rather than delicious terror.
Gaiman’s witch is wonderfully underplayed, more a blunt, short-sighted, bad-tempered old woman than the cackling banshee type. When the children and their father are reunited at the end, the joyful father reports that “each day he had searched for them in the forest,” and you believe it, of course. Gaiman, who has won every award a writer with a taste for the dark and fantastical could possibly win (Hugo, Nebula, Newbery), ends on an unequivocal high note, reminding us that horror should always be wielded along with some small possibility of brightness. He spends a moment to draw out his description of the stalwart siblings’ well-deserved future prosperity, evoking the scene at both Hansel’s and Gretel’s weddings: Both “married well,” and at the celebrations the food is plentiful. The moon looks down “kindly.”
At the beginning, Mattotti’s illustrations, all of them two-page spreads, pull you inexorably into their dark, menacing swishes, with just small patches of white visible here and there, like tiny beams of light into a prison cell. But when the children and their father are reunited, he offers a final spread that shows the family frolicking outside their house against a generous stretch of pure whiteness. It’s a moment of terribly hard-won joy, the best kind.
It’s a challenge to be a children’s book publisher and want to put out something genuinely haunting in today’s climate. We all know children have to be protected from experiencing anything too real. So we filmed Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly with Neil Gaiman at his new house in Woodstock to talk about comics and children and exposing them to fear and dark material in books.
Gaiman says, “I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids—and in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back. Tell them you can win. Because you can, but you have to know that. And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is it’s like in an inoculation. You know you are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming—it’s understandable. They can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it. And, it’s okay. It’s safe to tell you that story, as long as you tell them that you can be smart and you can be brave and you can be tricky and you can be plucky and you can keep going.” – Vimeo
This had been a prolific year for Neil Gaiman—across several mediums. Among the works he has published in 2014 are a picture book (Chu’s First Day) illustrated by Adam Rex, a graphic novel edition of his 2009 Newbery Award-winning The Graveyard Book (all HarperCollins) adapted by P. Craig Russell, and even a digital game, Wayward Manor. One of the first graphic novels for older readers from Toon Books, Hansel and Gretel is a retelling of the classic fairy tale first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. This new version pairs Gaiman’s wit with Italian painter Lorenzo Mattotti’s dark and gloomy art, making for a spine-tingling tale.
Lorenzo Mattotti first created the art for Hansel and Gretel for an exhibit celebrating the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of the classic story. How did your partnership in this project come about?
I was at the apartment of Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman and was shown these amazing set of paintings. At first glance, they just looked like wild splashes of ink, and then, in that one you see the children, and you realize they’re lost in the forest. And Françoise said, would I like to write my own “Hansel and Gretel?” And it was one of those glorious moments. I could actually say: Yes, I have been waiting all my life for somebody to say, “Will you write ‘Hansel and Gretel’?”
This story has a long tradition of interpretations—it was being retold long before the Brothers Grimm published their famous version. What about this tale inspired you to write this particular edition?
I first heard it on the radio when I was about five years old in the garden of my grandmother’s house. It was a radio program where they had a few songs from the English translation of the [Engelbert] Humperdinck Hansel and Gretel opera. And I found it absolutely terrifying. It was the first time it had occurred to me that humans ate other humans and that I was potentially food. The discovery was so shocking and so dark. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids. And in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten—that you have power.
Why do you think this story is so timeless?
For a good fairy tale to last—to be told and retold—it has [to have] gone through a Darwinian process. The stories that don’t last, we don’t hear them. The glory of a story like “Hansel and Gretel” is that it was told in the days of old transmission. If you tell people a story and they don’t think it’s a good story, they won’t tell it to other people. If they like it, they’ll tell it with their own little changes and they’ll make it local, and suddenly you’ve got a story.
Many of your works have a strong connection between text and images, and might even be considered examples of transmedia. What are your thoughts on the interaction between words and pictures?
Dave McKean, with whom I did comics from the word go, was my first collaborator. I was 26 and he was 23 and one of Dave’s heroes was Lorenzo Mattotti. He would show me Mattottian art and I loved that like Dave, Mattotti seemed to have no style that he imposed upon the material. He seemed to be an artist who just wanted to find the way to draw the thing that he was drawing.
What was really fun for me is that I’d seen the illustrations before I wrote my Hansel and Gretel. But having sat and looked at them, and just been haunted by them, they were in the back of my head. I knew that I had this darkness, these things that looked like mad ink splotches that suddenly reveal themselves if you look at them to be people, trees, axes, knives, and food, and become simpler as you go on.
I cannot think of anything that I’ve done that I would not want illustrated.
If this isn’t the definitive edition of “Hansel and Gretel,” it’s absolutely necessary.
It would be easy for readers to believe that Mattotti drew these pictures while listening to a storyteller by firelight, as if he grabbed a piece of charcoal straight out of the ashes, because he needed to draw the characters right away. The truth may be even more amazing. The pictures were inspired by a Metropolitan Opera production of the Humperdinck favorite, and the thick patches of ink contain five different colors, though the effect is of enveloping blackness. The swirling lines look as though they might start moving if seen at just the right moment. The pictures have inspired Gaiman to write some of his most beautiful sentences, direct and horrifying: “If you do not eat,” says the woodcutter’s wife, “then you will not be able to swing an axe. And if you cannot cut down a tree, or haul the wood into the town, then we all starve and die.” The wordless double-page spreads alternate with text-filled spreads, with lines set generously apart and framed by delicate flowers. A deluxe version, about half again as big, features a die-cut cover but is otherwise equally, spectacularly understated.
The Grimm version is as frightening as a bedtime story gets, but this version will scare people in new ways, and some of those people may need to start drawing right away.
Master storyteller Gaiman (The Graveyard Book) plumbs the dark depths of Hansel and Gretel, imagining the pair’s mother scheming to abandon them (“Two dead are better than four dead,” she tells their father. “That is mathematics, and it is logic”) and reveling in the witch’s cruelty. “Today, when the oven is hot enough, we will roast your brother,” she announces to Gretel. “But do not be sad. I will give you his bones to chew, little one.” Italian illustrator Mattotti contributes elegant b&w ink spreads that alternate with spreads of text. His artistry flows from the movement of his brush and the play of light and shadow. The witch’s house, tiled with baroque decorations and topped with a graceful tower, is unexpectedly beautiful; light pours through the barley sugar windows. The absence of color is a foil for Gaiman’s panoply of words: “gloves and hats of travelers, and coins of cold and of silver, a string of pearls, chains of gold and chains of silver.” Gaiman makes the story’s horrors feel very real and very human, and Mattotti’s artwork is genuinely chilling.
Newbery Medal–winner Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book) retells Hansel and Gretel as a story of parents plotting a murder by neglect, with full-spread India ink compositions by Lorenzo Mattotti as dark and terrifying as his forest setting.
Gaiman reaches back to the tale’s Grimm roots, at a time when Germany was besieged by war and food was scarce. After hunger pangs wake Hansel in the night, he hears his mother suggest to his woodcutter father that he take their children deep into the forest and “lose them.” With four mouths to feed, she suggests, “we’ll all die. Without the extra mouths, you and I will have a chance.” Mattotti’s swirling black brushstrokes leave licks of white flames where the children’s father has built a fire for them in the forest, in the upper left corner of one illustration, and readers can just make out the father’s axe, eye and hand in the lower right-hand corner as he leaves them to their fate. The artist creates each wordless double-page scene as menacing unexplored territory revealed to readers alongside the two siblings, from their discovery of the old woman’s gingerbread house, to the suggestion of Hansel’s cage, to the oven swallowing their captor like a hungry mouth.
Gaiman’s text is a study in minimalism (“The old woman is dead,” Gretel tells her brother, “I killed her”), yet he includes every salient detail–the father’s reluctance to lose his children, the siblings’ resourcefulness and bravery in breaking free, and the happy reunion when they return. A perfectly frightful treat. –Jennifer M. Brown, children’s editor, Shelf Awareness
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