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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This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest. Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti both remember the horror and fascination with which they read the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel.” The writer and the artist now join forces for a brilliant reimagining of one of humanity’s most enduring tales. Be brave, be bold, and keep your wits about you—Gaiman and Mattotti are welcoming you into the woods.
It’s out! Working with the Locust Moon guys, TOON Books just came out with a new book full of Nemo tributes: Little Nemo’s Big New Dreams - and the way they incorporated the big spreads is kinda brilliant. I’m beyond honored to be in such awesome company (Up top: my bra piece, Yuko Shimizu’s Nemo, Bishakh Som’s Nemo and Coin-Op Peter and Maria Hoey’s Nemo, launch night at Desert Island).
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!
Hey, pals! Judgin’ by this web page, it looks like it’s finally safe to announce that my contribution to Locust Moon’s Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream was also selected to appear in this year’s Little Nemo’s Big New Dreams from Toon Books (out in September, two weeks before Black Rat). This edition will be a significantly smaller format, page count, and price than th’ big ol’ beast of a book that came out last year. It’s a streamlined selection of highlights, handpicked by my hero Françoise Mouly—all packaged in a lovely design from th’ top brass at Toon Books with forewords by Françoise Mouly & Art Spiegelman themselves. To celebrate, here’s th’ first time I’ve shared th’ full view o’ my contribution (along with that old detail pic and a reference from Winsor McCay for those that don’t knows) onlines. If you wants it bigger an’ more legible, you’d best invest, babies!
EXCLUSIVE video of Neil Gaiman talking with Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly about Hansel & Gretelfrom Toon Books:
“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…
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.”