Basic Plot Summary: Hansel and Gretel, a brother and sister, overhear their parents planning to lead them into the forest and abandon them during a time of famine, in order to better their own chances for survival. On their way into the forest, they drop breadcrumbs to leave a trail to follow, but the crumbs are eaten by birds. Hansel and Gretel find a cottage made of sweet bread and candy, and the witch who owns it takes them prisoner, forcing Gretel to help her fatten Hansel up for eating. The children trick the witch, eventually locking her in her own oven, and return home to their father (with the witch’s jewels), who regrets abandoning them and happily welcomes them home.
The Brothers Grimm included this story in their first volume of fairy tales, published in 1812. Some believe that it has its somewhat gruesome origins in the Great Famine of Europe’s 14th century, during which some parents were said to have abandoned or cannibalized their children for survival. In most versions of the story, the children’s mother (or stepmother, as was often the case) had died when they returned home, leading many to believe the stepmother and the witch were possibly the same person. In addition to many literary interpretations, the story has inspired a 19th century German opera and several film adaptations, including the 2013 action comedy Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Hansel and Gretel – Author Rika Lesser went back to the earliest printed versions of this fairy tale when retelling this story, including having the children’s actual mother as the one who insists on leaving them for dead. To create the artwork for this book, Paul O. Zelinsky used a painting technique from the Renaissance that starts with a monochromatic painting in watercolor that is sealed and then painted over with transparent oils. It gives the illustrations a medieval look that works wonderfully for this story and won the book a Caldecott Honor. (Dutton Children’s Books, 1984)
Hansel and Gretel –Holly Hobbie loved the story of Hansel and Gretel as a young girl and tells us in an author’s note that she had a recorded version of the story, but never had an illustrated version, which is what inspired her to create one for herself. The artwork, in transparent watercolor, gouache and pen and ink, use darker colors than her usual bright color palette, which is only fitting for this dark and spooky story. I love her artwork here and find the witch’s pale and somewhat surreal face very unsettling. (Little Brown and Company, 2015)
The Cookie House – This version is written for beginner readers, in the ‘See Jane run’ style that seems to have (thankfully) gone by the wayside as publishers realized you didn’t have to be so overly simplistic to make a book accessible to the very young. Author Margaret Hillert gives Hansel and Gretel curious minds, as they explore and question what’s going on around them. Kinuko Craft’s illustrations have a vintage postcard quality that, combined with the basic text of the story, serves to make this book feel considerably older than it is. (Modern Curriculum Press, 1978)
Hansel and Gretel – Bookshelf favorite James Marshall plays up the intelligence of both children in his version, showing how they used their smarts to overcome the many obstacles they face. I love the way that the witch is drawn, with green fingernails and toenails. I feel like nothing in any of his artwork can ever feel truly menacing because it all seems so cheery and silly. The final picture, showing them happily reunited with their father and covered with the witch’s jewels, is really great. (Puffin Books, 1990)
And what did we learn? What I take away from Hansel and Gretel is that, when you find yourself in danger, keeping your wits and thinking clearly can make the difference between life and death.