In 2007, Lorenzo Mattotti created India ink drawings for an exhibit accompanying the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Hansel & Gretel. These illustrations are now published with Neil Gaiman’s re-telling of the story, in a splendid picture book for older children.
Gaiman’s story is a fairly straightforward version of the tale, going back to the Grimm original – in which it is the heartless mother, not a stepmother, who persuades the rather feeble father to lose his children in the forest; and it is Hansel, the younger sibling, who lays the trails of pebbles and then breadcrumbs, not Gretel.
Food plays a prominent role in the story which makes it feel more real and less like a fairytale: Gaiman lays out the reasons for the lack of anything to eat – war and weather – leading to the abandonment of the children, and in the historical note at the end, it is suggested that in the Great Famine of 1315 this did actually happen along with the cannibalism that leads to the abundance at the old woman’s cottage.
The writing is conversational, and having just seen Neil Gaiman in person, I could hear his voice in the rhythm of the words and the construction of the sentences. This low key, almost informal, style makes for a more chilling contrast with the horror of the story: in fact, the old woman’s intentions towards Hansel are rather casually slipped in, as though, really, roasting young children is something of an everyday occurrence.
Mattotti’s illustrations are anything but low key: great swirls of dark ink loom and lours ominously over and around the small, silhouetted children; and white is used only sparingly to show, for example, the outlines, the bones as it were, of the old woman’s cottage. Whereas Gaiman’s text is casual, and all the more creepy for that, the artwork, by contrast, is dramatic and bold. But together the words and the pictures work to present a fresh, if not original, take on a well-known tale, and one that would make a marvelous readaloud for older kids.