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Friday, January 1, 2016

Hansel and Gretel, by Holly Hobbie. Little Brown and Company, Hachette. 2015.$19.00 ages 5 and up

"Then, on the third
morning, they suddenly
came upon a cheerful
little cottage. The dwelling
was made of cake, with a
roof of cookies and vanilla
icing and windows of
sparkling sugar. Hansel
and Gretel broke off pieces
of sweet chocolate and
hungrily ate them."

This has always been one of my favorite fairy tales. I think it is the idea that young children are so resourceful at overcoming the odds. Well, and the appeal of a house made of deliciousness!

The plight of the family is encompassed in the darkness of the title page: spare surroundings, all the trees cut down leaving the woodcutter father without a means of support, no happiness evident anywhere. As the story opens we see a gaunt woman wearing clothes that overwhelm her slight frame, the children eating worriedly from their meager bowls of food, and a dispirited man slumped over his meal. The wife is livid and threatening.

"We cannot feed your children any longer. We must
get rid of them." She was the children's stepmother.
"Get rid of them?" the woodcutter shouted. "Never! I love my children."
"Then make four coffins," the wife scolded bitterly. "One for each of us."

What would we do? It is a brutal question to ask.

The telling is in keeping with the original tale ... two trips into the forest to try to leave the children behind, one return trip following white pebbles sparkling in the moonlight, a second one impossible as the birds have consumed the breadcrumbs dropped, the trek through the forest (full of trees to cut if only people had money to buy the wood), finding the cottage that sparkled and shone, meeting the woman who lived there and turned out to be mostly hungry for children, the trickery and the triumphant return home to live happily ever after. The text for the telling is spare, as Holly Hobbie wants her illustrations to be the focal point.

The artwork is described in an author's note:

"My paintings are created with transparent watercolor, pen and ink, and gouache on watercolor paper. It was necessary to change my typically cheerful palette to convey the somber setting of Hansel and Gretel. I found myself using indigo for the first time in my life, rather than the brighter and friendlier ultramarine blue. Thank goodness the sun breaks out in the end."

That art is as sinister and harrowing as the tale it tells. The magic of the candy house is overpowered by our first look at the witch - white-faced, spindly limbed and voluminously clothed. Her back turned to the smiling children allows a glimpse at her true nature. Beautifully rendered, yet creepy as well, it is good to know we are in for a happy ending.

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