Hansel and Gretel

by Will Moses
based on The Brothers Grimm

Will Moses's Hansel and Gretel
based on The Brothers Grimm fairy tale

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages 5-9

A faithful retelling of the original Brothers Grimm tale with folk art illustrations

There is something terribly satisfying about the Hansel and Gretel story, in which the lines between good and evil are made definitive, even if they appear blurry at the beginning, and justice is served, with rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked at the end.

In the introduction to this edition, the artist recalls second-guessing himself. He had always wanted to illustrate the story, one of his favorites from childhood, but as an adult he couldn’t help but wonder about its “dark” elements.

I, too, considered the dark elements of the tale as I read this book to my stepchildren. The evil stepmother speaks “cruelly,” she “harangued and argued,” until her husband gives in to the “horrible deed” she proposes, scolds and tirades, and refers to the others as fools.

But perpetuating the archetype of the wicked stepmother as antagonist of a story is, of course, different from doing so in real life. Wicked stepmothers, of course, do not read bedtime stories. Only the good ones do this.

Hansel and Gretel is a story from a different era, one in which economic realities meant that children were sometimes abandoned and made vulnerable to predation by their own parents. But, as the author notes, when he discussed it with fans, it “struck a chord with just about everyone.” Children and adults are still drawn to the sinister elements of the tale, one in which evil women seek to destroy innocent kids.

Review - Hansel and Gretel by Will Moses

This tale contains not one, but two wicked women, although they are, in some ways, one and the same (in this version, the two characters are even drawn similarly). In actions and traits, the wicked stepmother is paralleled by the wicked witch. Whereas the stepmother wants the kids out of the picture so that she can control their inheritance, the witch wants to actually assimilate the children’s worth by cooking and eating them.

Moses’s lush painted illustrations situate Hansel and Gretel in their once-upon-a-time environment, in Germany’s Black Forest, in a time when bears and wolves cavorted in the nighttime, and forests without human presence could still exist. In this time, we understand, witches and wicked stepmoms are expected, even necessary.

The attention to detail in these illustrations is wonderful. Every piece of furniture and every piece of cloth, no matter how small, is rendered in exquisite detail. Fabrics feature texture and decoration: the fine woven work on the parents’ quilt, the patches on the children’s nightclothes. Most of the wooden furniture is painted with suns, moons, flowers, and other folksy designs, while the candy house is, of course, parti-colored with frosting dropping from the roof and candy cane adornments.

There is something delicious for children (beyond the candy house, of course) inherent in the story of Hansel and Gretel. Their defeat of the wicked witch, paralleled by the convenient death of the wicked stepmother, is a triumph of good over evil in its simplest terms. The house of candy, the chest of gems, even the helpful duck that ferries them to safety at the end, speaks of a world where wrongs can be righted, where children have agency, and where families survive through the harshest conditions to be reunited in love.

Read more of Monica's reviews.

More Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales.

Read a translation of the original Brothers Grimm version.

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