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 Lorenzo Mattotti.
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.
Also worth mentioning is that this book was published by Toon Books, a publisher of children’s literature and comics run by Francois Mouly. I spoke in another recent post about her brilliant editing and design careers at Raw and The New Yorker, but forgot to bring up her fantastic children’s book company. They publish some really really great stuff, and I recommend anyone looking for great comics to look in their direction.
Linked above is a nice video where Neil Gaiman talks with Francois Mouly and Art Spiegelman about this book and the act of scaring children. (Click here if the video doesn’t load properly)
from my Tumblr blog: ferdifz.tumblr.com [direct link]