Children's Corner: Adam Gidwitz's Grimm outlook will delight kids


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Children's novelist Adam Gidwitz loves fairy tales. No, not the versions featuring pink-frilled princesses and rescuer-princes, but real fairy tales, the ones originally recorded by the Brothers Grimm, stories featuring blood, gore and raw emotions.

To Mr. Gidwitz, these original Grimm fairy tales have a lot to say to kids today, just as they have resonated with children for nearly two centuries.

"These fairy tales speak so perfectly to children's deepest needs," he said in a recent interview just after an appearance at Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.

"Physical pain is something that children understand and can cope with and know it will pass. Other kinds of pain -- emotional pain -- are much more difficult for children to bear," added Mr. Gidwitz, whose second book, "In a Glass Grimmly" (Dutton, $16.99, ages 8-12), has just been published.

"What fairy tales do is put physical pain in the place of emotional pain, blood in the place of tears. ... It's a more accessible way for kids to address the difficult emotions they may feel."

Because kids in elementary school and beyond are so jaded by the whitewashed versions, however, Mr. Gidwitz, 30, has found that it can be hard, at first, to interest them even in his updated versions.

To counter this initial resistance to reading fairy tales, Mr. Gidwitz, a former teacher, has come up with an irresistible way to persuade them to give it a try. Throughout both his books, a narrator constantly interrupts the flow to directly address readers, warning them about some gory parts about to happen, giving them advice about what to expect next or even suggesting that they might want to stop reading.

It's a comical and highly effective literary device that immediately makes readers a part of the story. Here's how he opens his first book, "A Tale Dark and Grimm" (Dutton, $16.99, ages 8-12):

"Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.

"I know, I know. You don't believe me. ... Little girls in red caps skipping around the forest? Awesome? I don't think so.

"But then I started to read them. The real, Grimm ones. Very few little girls in red caps in those.

"Well, there's one. But she gets eaten."

In that first book, Mr. Gidwitz tells the "true" story of Hansel and Gretel, detailing their adventures -- through a number of terrible trials involving grown-ups who want to kill them -- before they end up at "happily ever after." The comic romp won raves from critics and young readers, putting "A Tale Dark and Grimm" on the best-sellers' list.

In his new book, "In a Glass Grimmly," Mr. Gidwitz once again uses the "intrusive narrator," who starts off by addressing the difference between the "drivel that passes for fairy tales these days" and "real" fairy tales, which are "strange, bloody and horrible."

While he does base his new book on fairy tales, however, it's a much looser connection than in his first book. Instead, Mr. Gidwitz created much of the plot of "In a Glass Grimmly" because he wanted to use the device of fairy tales to focus on some of the challenges today's kids face, such as bullying and neglectful parents.

"I wanted to address peer issues," he added. "For me, middle school was really tough. All of that trying to fit in is really hard."

"In a Glass Grimmly" features three protagonists. First, there's Jill, whose self-absorbed mother, a queen, allows her daughter to walk through the streets of the kingdom stark-naked in Mr. Gidwitz's nod to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Then there's Jack, Jill's cousin, who is bullied by older boys that he hero-worships. The boys roar with laughter when Jack takes their disingenuous advice to trade his cow for a "magic bean."

Finally, there's a talking frog, who is humiliated and maimed by a beautiful but cruel princess who says she will kiss him but instead throws him into a wall.

The three characters eventually meet up and head out on a quest for the long-lost Seeing Glass. Along the way, they have many scary and funny adventures as they outwit gross giants, child-eating grown-ups and other unsavory characters.

At the end, the three find a measure of self-knowledge that allows them to live "happily ever after."

Mr. Gidwitz has written the first draft of a third Grimm book that he expects will be published next fall. Meanwhile, he's still reveling in his good fortune of being able to write full time for children.

"The reason I love writing for children is that you can really talk about serious issues in a fun way. ... I call it 'serious fun,' " he said. "And I get to spend all day in my PJs and slippers. I feel so lucky."

books

Reach Karen MacPherson, children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.


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