Sunday, October 21
13 Days of Halloween: In a Glass Grimmly
Jack and Jill (and a Frog) went up a beanstalk to fetch a magic mirror. Along the way they outwit Giants, Goblins, a fire-breathing salamander named Eddie, and their parents. A companion to 2010's A Tale Dark and Grimm.
Lately I've been wondering if we do more harm than good by making childhood too safe. I'm not thinking about car seats or non-toxic flame-retardant materials, but a sort of intellectual safety that prevents curiosity and the development of common sense more than it protects. We would prefer to believe it is more important to teach children to fear strangers than to develop an internal sense of knowing when and whom to fear.
The problem (for those who find it a problem) is that without a hard and fast set of rules we have the dual issue of teaching the difficult (intuition) coupled with an unacknowledged root source (adult responsibility, or lack thereof). The sad thing is that there is a solution, its been with us for hundreds of years, and we take it for granted: storytelling. There's a lot that can be learned in a story, and they don't have to be overly moralistic or didactic, and they can occasionally be quite fun. Horrifying, gory, disagreeable and yet unexplainable good fun.
And the best part is that kids really like it.
For those who haven't gleaned it from the title, In A Glass Grimmly, Adam Gidwitz's "companion" to A Tale Dark and Grimm, takes as its source the folk and fairy tales once told to children back when people lived closer to a world full of inexplicable horror. Lacking medicine, much less the concept of hygiene, there were invisible things far scarier than the shadows that dwell in the nearby woods, ah, but what wonderful stories could be constructed from those shadows. As a result, though these tales were as full of the sort of caution we might dole out to our own kids these days it was done with a great deal of adventure, magic, and humorous absurdity as well.
Gidwitz begins with parallel stories about a pair of children, a boy named Jack who is a bit dim and unpopular with other boys, and Jill who is being reared to be as shallow and cruel as her mother. Actually, no, Gidwitz starts with the story of a frog, a hapless amphibian who falls in love with a vain princess, is gifted with ability to speak, and suffers for believing the princess's promises of friendship in exchange for his assistance. These three stories, variants of "The Frog Prince," "The Emperor's New Clothes," and "Jack and the Beanstalk" – all with quite a bit of modification – bind our trio of adventurers out to learn the harsh cruelties the world has to offer in exchange for obtaining the thing each wants most.
The astute reader can find within this tale any frame of reference they bring with them. Even those who might not recognize the original tales Gidwitz creates within his framework will nonetheless recognize the various hero's journeys found in other tales. There's as much Wizard of Oz as there is Lord of the Rings with all the blood and guts and foolishness of the true fairy tales of old. Meant to shock or call attention to the peril, the violence in these stories can be easy to dismiss as "once upon a time" but the cruelty, the psychological terror and abuse adults inflict on these children (and a hapless frog) are still very much real for many readers. If there can be advantage found in stories that reflect contemporary "issues" then I would argue the same for a carefully constructed epic fairy tale like In A Glass Grimmly.
But here's the biggest draw for me: it's fun to read. It's fun and it breezes by, pages flying with unbelievable twists, recognizing old tales and looking for the moments they diverge from their more traditional tellings. Gidwitz likes to break in occasionally (less than in the previous book, which was too bad, because I enjoyed those digressions) and warn the reader of what's to come. There's a wink and a nod because, as much as he's prepared us, the true horrors have nothing to do with the acts of violence about transpire. He's smart enough to trust the reader will know the purpose of these warnings is to break (or increase) tension and playfully knock the reader off balance. It makes the experience interactive, conspiratorial, and, as I said, a kick to read.
Finally, if there is a sense that readers have of "growing out of" fairy tales, as these stories being for more younger children, I'd like to suggest that the real problem comes from a progressive sanitation of these stories over time. It is easy to grow weary of happy endings that come with no larger lesson. The frog isn't turned into a prince by a kiss in the original, he is flung against the wall by the princess in a deliberate attempt to kill him, and when he is revealed to be a prince the princess is so humiliated she spends the rest of her days in his servitude. I daresay things for Frog are much worse here, though in the end he ends up the hero in a way he never was in any fairy tale previously written. If a teen guy were to give this book a chance they might find that they really do still like fairy tales.
(This review originally appeared over at Guys Lit Wire on October 10, 2012)