In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz, and the Retelling of Fairy Tales

There are (at least) two approaches to the recasting of old tales for children–anything from fairy tales to Chaucer to Shakespeare to even the stories of the Bible. Because these stories were not necessarily written (or told) for children, they sometimes contain dark, very dark, material –blood and violence and illicit sex and senseless mayhem and other things that are just nasty or repulsive and not terribly uplifting or useful to educate or grow or even entertain young minds.

Of course, if an author wants to re-tell a story that contains disturbing elements for a young audience, it can be bowdlerized. “Thomas Bowdler was an English physician and philanthropist, best known for publishing The Family Shakspeare, an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare’s work, edited by his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler, intended to be more appropriate for 19th century women and children than the original.” (Wikipedia, Thomas Bowdler) Bowdlerization has been denigrated, unjustifiably in my opinion, but it’s done all the time. As Mr. Gidwitz says in his introduction to In a Glass Grimmly, “Once upon a time, fairy tales were horrible. . . strange, bloody, and horrible.” And almost all of the storytellers since then have downplayed or bowdlerized the bloody, gruesome, unpalatable parts of the fairy tales they were telling—for the sake of the children and even the adults who are reading.

Some would say that the older the audience the more unjustified the omissions and changes are. However, an author or storyteller who is spinning his own story made up of elements of old tales has the right to pick and choose the elements he thinks will make for the strongest and most artistic story. Some of the darker elements, especially for an older audience, may make the story stronger and more meaningful or they may just make it it stupid or repugnant, as in the example that Mr. Gidwitz also shares of how Cinderella’s step-sisters actually sliced off parts their feet to make them fit into the glass slipper. I can’t imagine how that little detail would improve the story unless you’re doing a meditation on self-injury and cutting.

So, anyway, one direction to go is to cut out the nasty parts. The other approach is to play up the nastiness: describe in great and excruciating detail how Jack the giant killer eviscerated the giant and just how the blood and vomit mixed on the floor and how utterly revolting and disgusting the entire scene was. Use phrases such as “the steaming, putrid pool rippled” or “spilling his blood and viscera and porridge” or “a burbling swamp of (stomach) acid” (actual phrases from In a Glass Grimmly, and not the most revolting ones), and maybe because you used descriptive, mature vocabulary words in your middle grade fantasy novel, people will ooh and aah and say how well-written the novel is.

In a Glass Grimmly takes the well-written but disgusting approach, and not to good effect. I waded, or at least skimmed, through all the blood and vomit in giant-land, and I was not impressed. The descriptions are vivid, and I suppose, well-written, but the chapters are sort of disconnected, and the narrator is intrusive and annoying. I hate books that seem to say, “Oh, kids like gross, nasty, slimy stuff. Let’s take the really loathsome parts of this tale and make them the centerpiece of the narrative because that will draw the kids in.”

There was a bit of redeeming value towards the end of the book, but it wasn’t enough to make up for all the gratuitous blood, gore, guts, and puke that came before. When the narrator actually says, “Ooooh, you won’t like this part. You might want to put the book down now,” then it’s supposed to make me feel contrary enough to go ahead and read anyway? It’s kind of like saying, “I double dog dare you!” But it made me feel SO contrary that I wanted to close the book immediately because I knew the author/narrator didn’t really want me to quit reading. I think many (most?) kids are smart enough to get the same message.

About the only thing I did enjoy while reading In a Glass Grimmly was trying to figure out which fairy tale each part of the story came from, but I thought it meandered quite a bit. And it isn’t the “darkness” of the book or of its original sources that I’m complaining about. Guts and vomit aren’t really dark; they’re just foul and I think, pandering.

If this review makes you want to read the book even more than you did before, you are the intended audience. Have fun.

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