Of all the fairytales I’ll be covering, I find this one the most disturbing. The story typically follows the theme where the poverty stricken parents choose to abandon their children in the dark forest, and the children find their way to a gingerbread house where a witch imprisons them with the intent to fatten them up and eat them.
This is truly dark stuff! I always reassure my students that their parents would never ever consider abandoning them – that parents would starve themselves rather than let their children go hungry. But I’m going to be brutally honest here: history has shown that parents haven’t always thought that way. There are accounts of parents murdering their children during extreme famines, either to cannibalize or at least to trade to another family so neither has to eat their own children. The rationale that historians give for this way of thinking is that childhood mortality was quite low, and the parents could fend for themselves (as opposed to young children) and would eventually have more children to replace them. Many ancient cultures did not see children below certain ages as “people” yet, so maybe it made it easier to make these hard decisions.
Whatever the thinking, this is one of those classics that has left an indelible mark on our culture.
I’m going to start 1st grade off with the James Marshall version:
I imagine they will already have the basics of the story in their minds. We will follow up with a fun one, again from Corey Rosen Schwartz:
I don’t have a title picked to read to 2nd grade, but I did go ahead and read the Rika Lesser retelling with marvelous classical illustrations by Paul Zelinsky:
I asked the class for a volunteer to tell me the story quickly from memory. I was quite surly when one of our ESL students, who emigrated from India, was able to tell me the story. They did notice that Hansel and Gretel were left in the woods twice – most thought it was just once, and the differences in the makeup of the house. Most kids say candy or gingerbread but in this version the house is made of loaves of bread with sugar windows and pancakes for shingles on the roof.
There are a lot of different versions of this story available, and here are a few that I have at school:
This whole series is popular at my school! Nice third grade level picture books.
This is part of a whole series of early chapters that present three versions of each story from around the world.
I love Neil Gaiman, and the dark black and white brushstroke illustrations in this retelling really give a sinister feeling to the forest.
This is the first book in Adam Gidwitz’s trilogy. I have had it on my “to read” list for too long.
I didn’t realize this was a retelling until I did some online research. I brought it home right away when I figured it out.
Another very notable retelling if this story is by Garth Nix. It’s called Hansel’s Eyes and can be found in a short story collection:
If I found the original story disturbing, then this version horrified and terrified me. The story is in modern times and the witch doesn’t want to eat the children, she plans to harvest their organs. I don’t know why this scares me more than cannibalism, but it does. You can read a great write-up on it here at Through the Twisted Woods.
And just for fun, click here to watch Bugs Bunny’s attempt at Hansel and Gretel.