Fairy tale retellings have been popular...pretty much as long as I've been reading books. However, at least recently in YA, the re-tellings have focused on expanding the slight germ of a story from original sources like Grimm. They take a barebones story and expand it within its original fairy tale setting, like Princess of the Midnight Ball, or alternatively take the basic themes and set it in a totally foreign and modern setting, like Sisters Red. A Tale Dark and Grimm takes a slightly different approach, as it great adds depth to the original fairy tales while still maintaining the original spare-but-gruesome style.
Hansel and Gretel have a tough life, even in the original fairy tale, and Gidwitz ramps up the difficulty for them, giving them a father and mother who behead them in order to save the life of a beloved servant. When the children are put back together (it'd be an awfully short story if they weren't!), they decide they can't live with such awful parents, and set off into the forest to find new parents.
The first place they find is a cabin made of cakes and candies, where a kindly old woman lives and insists on feeding the children as much as they can possibly eat. Well, you probably know how this story ends. From here, Gidwitz retcons several more obscure Grimm tales in order to place Hansel and Gretel, either jointly or in solo missions, as the stars and heroes, with a narrator along for the ride that often interjects to let us know that the story is about to get darker and grimmer and bloodier and grosser and really any little kids in the room should have been sent to bed long ago.
This is a relatively dark and gorey book, but the narrator's presence really helps lighten the tone, even when he's warning us of doom and gloom. We know something bad is coming, so we can steel ourselves and be prepared. And really, even though Disney has bowdlerized a number of fairy tales, those can still get dark and creepy. The Wicked Queen in Snow White falls to her death (as does Mother Goethel in Tangled), the Beast is stabbed by Gaston and Mufasa is murdered by his own brother. While in A Tale Dark and Grimm bad things happen to the good guys, which can be more disturbing in some ways, I still never found it to be over the top.
Because the violence isn't the point of any one of these stories. While fairy tales were originally cautionary tales, the themes in A Tale Dark and Grimm are much more uplifting and aspirational about the meanings of love and family and kindness and sacrifice. These aren't warnings that good little girls and boys should stay out of the woods; these stories encourage recognizing the strengths and weaknesses in yourself and others, and being helpful and good whenever you can.
I absolutely loved that, unlike many classic fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel are equal players in this, and both get their fair share of adventuring and problem solving. Gretel really does get to wield that sword she's holding on the cover - no damsels in distress here! And speaking of that cover - it's absolutely fabulous, bringing to mind old woodcut illustrations. The design staff was clearly in communication with editorial when designing this cover, because everything there comes into play in the story eventually. Even that dragon!