I thought a lot about Hansel and Gretel while taking and editing these photos. We’d just gotten Cynthia Rylant’s version of the tale; it was in heavy rotation. 
Rylant’s version of Hansel and Gretel is dreamily illustrated by Jen Corace.
(As my dad said, these children may be starving but they have very nice clothes.) Her re-telling focuses not on the cruelty of the parents, the terrors of the woods or the sweet delights of the gingerbread house but on the self-reliance of the children.
It has been said that guardian spirits watch over and protect small children, and that may be so. But there are also stories of children who find the courage to protect themselves.
Hansel is the brains behind the pebbles and the best-laid-plans breadcrumbs. He comforts and assures his sister. But there can be no version where Gretel doesn’t stuff the old witch into a hot oven. And Rylant’s Gretel isn’t the helpless sweetling who needs her brother to come up with all the ideas. She has agency and chutzpa, physical strength. The witch-stuffing is all her.
Rylant throws the children’s father a bone: he agreed to abandon them while under the step-mother’s spell–magical or romantic unspecified. (I imagine that, as in Snow White, the mother became a “step-” as the tale ripened into a slightly less appalling modern version.)
Greek tragedy-scale familial relations aside, I worried my son would get nervous if we ran out of bread or I took him and his sister into the woods. But he loves Hansel and Gretel in any of the iterations I’ve shared–morbid, cruel, “original” Grimm-esque  or cartoonish and candy-focused. And I now find myself thinking of the story when I watch my son and daughter together–-in nature or during any moment of deep play that leaves them cloistered in their own world.
I inscribed this line in the copy of Rylant’s Hansel and Gretel I gave my son on the first day of pre-k.
Take courage always.
Our day at Island Beach State Park (complete with Pecan Sandies that got all sandy, to my four-year old’s tickled fancy) was more of an late summer idyll than a terror-filled test of inner fortitude. But I loved seeing the children walk ahead and explore the golden-rod lined paths as I hung back with my camera, imagining them growing into big kids who will help each other find inner strength.
- My mother, a reading specialist who teaches a grad-level class about children’s books, introduced me to Newbery Medal winner and librarian Cynthia Rylant’s work. Thanks, ma! Rylant also wrote the Henry and Mudge stories, biographies of Margaret Wise Brown and E. B. White. More here. ↩
- I got way into fairy tales in my olde semeotics days. Having children of fairy-tale reading age is an excuse to re-read and enjoy (and try to reactivate the dormant parts of my brain). We have Taschen’s Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, which hews pretty closely to the “original” Grimm tales. Each story features gorgeous illustrations from a different, older edition. I am also slowly working my way through Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, an even more original version of each of the tales. ↩