Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti: A Review

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Best-selling author Neil Gaiman and fine artist Lorenzo Mattotti join forces to create Hansel & Gretel, a stunning book that’s at once as familiar as a dream and as evocative as a nightmare. – [X]

It’s halloween! I held out on dedicating a blogpost entirely to Neil Gaiman, but then Hansel & Gretel came out and it was love at first, erm, paragraph.

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I am not sure how to classify this book. I’ve categorized it as an illustrated novel as well as a picturebook- though the format is a bit too short to be an illustrated novel, and a bit too old-fashioned to be a picturebook exactly. The book alternates between a double spread of dark, inky illustrations and then two pages of simple but haunting storytelling. I am not even sure what the target audience for this one is*; as I just said, the words are simple and not excessively graphic (you know, for a story that deals with cannibalism), but the words in combination with the illustrations, well … *shudder*

I think that’s where I will begin. The illustrations.

The choice of illustrations for this retelling of Hansel & Gretel is an interesting one. Most of the time, when illustrations are black and white, they tend to feel a bit drab and monotonous. This is not, however, the case with Mattotti’s artwork. Every illustration is striking and compliments the writing perfectly. The illustrations perfectly depict the chaotic darkness of a forest, the shafts of light that pierce it occasionally, and the shadows that come out to play in the corners of our eyes just as you think you’re done scrutinizing the dark for something that scuttles. The illustrations are truly incredible and I don’t even know why people ever used colour to illustrate previous versions of Hansel & Gretel. Dark pictures for a dark story- it makes sense to me. (Coincidentally, I believe that the pages have more light in them as we approach the end.)

While I was reading the book for the first time, though, I was worried about how the gingerbread house would be depicted in the story with black and white pictures. Previous retellings really milk the scrumptious house for all its bright and candied worth. I thought it would not work out so well in this one- but that’s where Gaiman works his magic.

“Someone in that house must be baking,” said Gretel.

But she was wrong. The smell came from the house itself. It was made of fresh gingerbread, decorated with hard sugar candies of green and red. Even the windows were clear panes of barley sugar. Hansel reached out and broke off a window ledge. Gretel hesitated, but when she saw her brother eating and smiling, she pulled off a shingle from the wall, and they ate together, letting the spicy gingerbread fill their mouths, their heads, their stomachs.

– Page 32

Gaiman, with his wry comments and unexpected humour, does an interesting thing with this retelling. He manages to balance the tone somewhere between the magic of the fairytale and the reality of the oral storytelling traditions. In the beginning as we are slowly being eased into the dark expansive forest, we have Gaiman’s good-natured tone talking about the shortening of a girl’s name to Gretel. Later, as the darkness is becoming a familiar space, we have short, terse sentences that also acknowledge this acceptance:

“[Father] is not coming back for us,” said Gretel.

“No,” agreed Hansel.

– Page 25

There isn’t much that is changed in this retelling, but the one thing I did notice was that Gaiman does not refer to the cannibal as a witch. She’s just a near-sighted old woman- which, in a way, increases the horror of the situation; that a regular, grandmotherly type would resort to such depraved behaviour to satisfy her hunger. The line between humanity and monstrosity is constantly drawn and redrawn in this story especially in terms of the (very active) female characters.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one and if you’re looking to gift someone a scary book this halloween, definitely consider Gaiman and Mattotti’s Hansel & Gretel. If you want more options, feel free to explore our All Hallows Read tag.

Happy halloween to those who celebrate it! Be happy, be tricky, and be respectful of the people around you. <3

*I would probably set the lower limit at 7-8 years old?

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