Friday, October 31, 2014

Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman

My fairy tale history is a little fuzzy. Here’s what I remember about Hansel & Gretel: A boy and a girl are lost in the forest. They find a candy house and try to eat it. The witch gets mad and wants to eat them instead. Kids escape. An oven is involved.

But I knew something must be missing from the version I remembered, especially if Neil Gaiman had put pen to paper to record his version. The author of Coraline and The Graveyard Book certainly wouldn’t publish a saccharine story of lost kids and candy houses.

So I read and learned about the woodcutter and his wife and their two children. How their life was good until war came and food, once plentiful, became scarce. How a mother logically concluded that they will all die unless there were fewer mouths to feed. How a mother could convince her husband to abandon their children in the forest. Twice.

In other words, I finally got to know the real story of Hansel & Gretel.

Readers familiar with Toon Books may be expecting a comic version similar to other Toon Books titles, but Hansel & Gretel is told as a short story like the original Grimm story. The text is broken by fourteen two-page illustrations that alternate pages with the text. The illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti are done in black ink and reveal more and more each time they are viewed.

No, this is not the story I was told or remember or the one I just chose to remember. It’s better - way better - and thankfully so. It’s a story begging to be read aloud, slowly and quietly in a room dimly lit, to be heard by listeners contemplating abandoned children, sinister old ladies, scorching ovens, and finding a way home. Listeners lost in a tale well told.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen is one of those books where, upon the first read, a grown-up might wonder, “Hmm. So. They dig a hole. And don’t find anything. Then they fall. Ooookay.” It’s on subsequent reads that grown-ups start to notice the little things missed the first time through.

But read it with kids and the magic starts immediately. When Sam and Dave declare they are going to dig a hole and not stop until they find something spectacular, young readers are ready to share the adventure.

At the outset, things don’t look good for our diggers. They just miss a huge diamond, digging straight down, just past it. That certainly would have been spectacular. Sam and Dave’s frustrations persuade them to change tactics. They dig horizontally (and miss something more spectacular). They split up and dig diagonally (missing something even more spectacular-er). When they decide to dig straight down again, they miss the most spectacular-er-est item of all.

Or do they? At the end, Sam and Dave agree that what happened was spectacular, but to me the best discoveries are the ones readers make that get them flipping back through the book.

“Hey, look at their dog! He knows! Was he doing that on the last page?” Flip, flip.

“Wait a second. Didn’t they have an apple tree?” Flip, flip.

“Check out that cat! See how the dog is looking at him?” Flip, flip.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole pulls kids back inside, that won’t let readers turn the last page, and keeps them searching and discovering more.

And that, you have to agree, is pretty spectacular.