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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hansel and Gretel, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. TOON-BOOKS, Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $19.00 ages 8 and up

"She gathered a pile of leaves, and the two children made themselves as comfortable as they could beside the crackling fire. They awoke in the small hours of the night, when the fire was only embers. The moon was full, and in the moon's light Hansel found it easy to retrace his steps: the white stones from the stream were perfectly visible even in the darkness. Hansel and Gretel held hands as they walked."

If you love language and you enjoy retellings of the old fairy tales have I got a treat for you. Neil Gaiman has a decidedly delicious tale to share. He knows that kids love to be scared, and his retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story fits that bill, with a vengeance. Lorenzo Mattotti matches the feelings the story evokes in his haunting dark silhouette images.

Mr. Gaiman wastes not a word as he brings this old story to a brand new generation of readers. I love it from first page to last, having read it numerous times to savor each and every word. It's design is stunning and will captivate readers with each turn of the page. Two pages of glorious text are consistently followed by a double page spread which provides a perfect backdrop for the dark tale of desperate parents putting themselves before the welfare of their children. Their lives have been enormously changed by the war that has ravaged their country. The family now lives a life of misery.

"If you do not eat," said his wife, "then you will not be
able to swing an axe. And if you cannot cut down a tree,
or haul the wood into town, then we all starve and die.
Two dead are better than four dead. That is mathematics,
and it is logic."
"I care for neither your mathematics nor your logic,"
grumbled the woodcutter. "But I can argue no more."
And Hansel heard only silence from his parents' bed."

Mr. Gaiman's witch has few of the characteristics we might know from earlier stories. She appears to be a softer, gentler version: appearances can be deceiving. Her house is just as appealing, enticing the very hungry children to eat. The witch has poor eyesight, a bad temper and explains that she no longer has any skills for hunting the meat she craves, She expresses sadness at their plight. She may be old; she is undeniably strong. Soon, Hansel is caged and Gretel is chained.

"The old woman was stronger than she looked - a sinewy,
gristly strength: she picked Hansel up, and carried the
sleeping boy into the empty stable at the rear of the little
house, where there was a large metal cage with rusty bars.
She dropped him onto the straw, for there was only straw
on the floor, along with a few ancient and well-chewed
bones, and she locked the cage, and she felt her way along
the wall, back to her house.

"Meat," she said, happily."

If you are a fan, you will know that Neil Gaiman loves to tell a dark and fantastic tale. He does not leave us in darkness, thankfully. Lorenzo Mattotti matches his storytelling with some pretty decent storytelling of his own in the dark, often forbidding images he creates to accompany the text. Only when the father is finally reunited with his children does he allow a more generous light.

Master storytellers? Indeed, they are. Bravo, gentlemen! 

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