The defining moment in Adam Gidwitz's young life as a writer occurred while at St. Ann's, a progressive private school in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he has worked a a teacher, on and off, since graduating from Columbia with an English degree in 2004.
He'd chosen to read to his class "Faithful Johannes," a Brothers Grimm tale that features the decapitation of two children by their parents. He wasn't worried he'd be fired—he'd gotten the idea to read Grimm from the school's principal. Still, he was tentative, watching the audience closely for signs of the story's effect on them.
He needn't have worried. "I was afraid they'd be shocked and terrified," he recalls. "Oh, no. They wanted more." The kids knew Gidwitz had taken a year off from teaching to start a novel set in ancient Egypt. One of them said, "You should make this into a book."
That comment stuck with Gidwitz, especially since his novel had him flummoxed. He'd already shown it to an agent (Sarah Burnes, the mother of one of his former students), who warned him it wouldn't sell. But from the enthusiastic reception the kids gave "Faithful Johannes" came a book Burnes could sell—A Tale Dark and Grimm (Dutton), an inventive, gory mix of retold tales and new material, with Hansel and Gretel in expanded, starring roles.
But not right away—as Tale's authoritative narrator might interject. First, Gidwitz rewrote two Grimm tales as picture book texts. Burnes, an agent at the Gernert Company, read them to her own children, then ages eight and five. "They were completely riveted," Burnes says. "Adam had the warning in there about getting little kids out of the room, and my five-year-old was like, ‘I'm staying!' You could see even in that nascent bud that the writing was totally engaging to kids."
Even so, Burnes wasn't quite sure what to do with retold fairy tales. "I thought they were extraordinary, but I never really thought they would work as picture books. I myself don't like to read long picture books," she says. She decided to send them to Dutton because she knew editor Julie Strauss-Gabel had a special interest in folklore and fairy tales.
Strauss-Gabel liked the writing, but she didn't see them as picture books either. She told Gidwitz to expand. "Julie wanted me to put the two I'd retold together, come up with some more, and have some kind of through-narrative with two kids that would link the stories together," Gidwitz recalls. "I thought it was a terrible idea. I stomped around and said, ‘She has no idea what she's talking about.' "
After a conversation with his father—who mentioned that Strauss-Gabel's idea reminded him of a "song cycle"—Gidwitz decided to try it. He chose some more favorites from Grimm and added two kids, but they weren't Hansel and Gretel—yet. "It was a while before I realized it would be really satisfying to have them be characters kids already know," Gidwitz says. Some of the tales he adapted very faithfully, but some he changed considerably to fit the new construct—two kids on a quest for parents better than the ones who had cut off their heads. (The heads, by the way, were quickly reattached.) The last three stories were pure invention.
A Tale Dark and Grimm received starred reviews from PW and School Library Journal and is in its fifth printing. The New York Times, PW, and School Library Journal named it a best children's book of the year.
Gidwitz is now working on a second collection of retold fairy tales (the main characters are Jack and Jill). After all, while growing up in Baltimore, he cut his teeth on them as a student at the Park School, where Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz was the librarian. Gidwitz remembers her as an "incredible storyteller. Atmospheric down to her toes. I told her that the last time I talked with her, and she said, ‘Oh. What I remember about you was that you were always crawling around on the rug while I was talking.' "
Gidwitz writes with kids like himself in mind—the narrator's frequent asides are similar to the way he stops when he's reading aloud to explain something, make a joke to lighten a heavy moment, or to gauge if everybody's still with him—and he writes specifically for his eager audience at St. Ann's.
"The thing with writing is that most people who don't finish their books just don't have the incentive," Gidwitz says. "But the kids made me finish because they demanded to hear more." —Sue Corbett