I love picture books that send me down a rabbit (or shall I say rat) hole, and this one is also a great Halloween pick. I’ve always been aware of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story as popularized by the Brothers Grimm – about a rat infestation in the town of Hamelin, Germany, and a Pied Piper who agrees to lure away the rodents with his music. But I was not acquainted with its evolving history - or with its darkness - before reading Tasso and Baas’s adaptation. At the core of the story is a message about fairness: when the townspeople refuse to fully compensate the Pied Piper for ridding the town of the rats, he lures their children away, drowning them or imprisoning them in a cave (depending on the version).
Despite its nebulous origins, there’s a kernel of truth behind the legend. In the year 1284, Hamelin’s town register recorded an event in which 130 children were mysteriously taken. A Pied Piper figure first appeared in a Hamelin stained glass window that depicted the story of the lost children around the year 1300. The rats that are so integral to the story have led scholars to the common theory that the legend is an allegory about the plague. Yet the rats did not actually become a part of the story until around 1559.
Other theories about the children of Hamelin and the role of the Pied Piper include that the Piper was simply a menace who abducted the children for his own nefarious purposes or that the Piper was a recruiter who took the children away to colonize Eastern Europe. Sometimes the Pied Piper is seen simply as a metaphor for death itself and the loss of the children is attributed to starvation or other natural causes.
The fate of the children in Tasso’s version, 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin, isn’t as bleak as other accounts. Here, he simply leads them to the hills where they live blissfully free of their self-serving and neglectful adult counterparts. Yet Baas’s artwork doesn’t downplay the story’s ominous undertones: he uses an eerie combination of red and slate blue, and in an especially unsettling spread, the scurrying hoard of rats practically fills in a page with solid black. Child readers who don’t go in for the fluffier Halloween fare may take an interest in learning about the story’s intriguingly dark history, and Baas’s Pied Piper – simply rendered with his woodwind instrument in a black cloak and hat – may even inspire a last minute costume idea. Just add rats: here in New York City, we’ve got plenty.