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How an Elementary School Library Inspired Adam Gidwitz’s Debut Novel

Elementary school teacher Adam Gidwitz (pictured) incorporated classic Grimm’s Fairy Tales in his debut novel, A Tale Dark & Grimm. We caught up with him to find out how he did it. The following features highlights from our interview.

Q: What inspired you to write your book?
A: I was substituting at the library in my school. I was supposed to be reading a story to second and third graders, but I didn’t know what story to choose. So I picked up my thick, musty old book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales off the shelf and began to thumb through it. I stopped on a story called Faithful Johannes.

Now, I had read this story myself. I knew that it involved multiple close encounters with death, intrigue, betrayal, and a shocking happy ending. I knew that I had always wanted to read it to students. But I also knew that the happy ending involved two sweet, lovely children getting their heads cut off. So I didn’t think I could read it to these library students. And then I thought, what the heck? Let’s see what happens!

So I read it to the kids. And I kept stopping in the middle, to make sure they weren’t too scared, and I had to change some things, because the translation was pretty weird, and I added some funny bits, because making kids laugh is one of my favorite things to do in the world. When I finished—and the children’s heads had been cut off and put back on—the students stared at me. Their mouths were hanging open. You could a door, way down the hallway, creak and close. And then they went crazy. ‘That was amazing!’ ‘I can’t believe that just happened!’ ‘You’ve got to make that into a book!’ And so I did.

Q: Why did you pick the tales you chose to include in your book?
A: Well, I didn’t have a choice on the first one—because it’s Faithful Johannes, and the kids would have throttled me if I didn’t include it.

After that, I wanted to choose awesome stories that kids would not have read—Grimm is so chock-full of incredible tales that never get told. How many of these do you know: The Robber Bridegroom, The Juniper Tree, The Three Golden Hairs, The White Snake, The Black Dwarf, The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage. How many? Two? One? And they are SO much better
than Little Red Riding Hood. Why do we insist on telling the same six fairy tales over and over again to our children, when there are so many wonderful ones that would open their eyes and ignite their minds?

That’s how I chose my stories—tales that I knew would blow their minds. And, of course, I changed them. Most people are confused about the relationship between the stories in my book and the Grimm tales. About a third of the stories in my book are pretty faithful to the originals. Another third use elements of the originals but take sharp departures. And the final third are totally original.

Q: Did you ever consider partnering up with an illustrator for this title?
A: My editor, the brilliant Julie Strauss-Gabel, and I talked about it quite a lot. But I was trying with my descriptive writing to convey the vivid simplicity of the Grimm tales. I wanted the kids to take the words into their minds and create their own images, their own characters, their own worlds. It’s why you might describe the main characters, Hansel and Gretel, as a bit flat—the point is for the children to take them into their own heads and inhabit them, just like the world. Julie and I worried that pictures would get in
the way of that in the case of this book.

Q: As an elementary school teacher, would you ever read your own book to your students during story time?
A: Funny you should ask. Last year, I read the book to my fifth graders. We had a fun time with it, and they seemed to enjoy it a lot (or they could have been sucking up—eminently possible). I have read chapters of it to second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade classes, and each experience was exciting and satisfying in a different way. Teachers have been telling me that they find a lot to talk about in the book for the little kids and the big ones.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: There’s another book coming, but you’ll have to wait for it. It’s on its third draft. For me, a book starts at 0% good, and each draft gains 10% of the quality it will finally need to make me happy. So right now it’s at 30% good. So next is about seven more drafts. Speaking of which, I’ve got to go write…

Full Disclosure: This GalleyCat correspondent has interned at Penguin Group (USA) in the past.

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