Museums, wicked witches and calories galore

posted in: Lisbeth Zwerger | 12

When I’m looking for inspiration as to what to read with M and J I often have a look at what’s going on at the various museums and centres around the world dedicated to children’s literature and illustration. Even if I can’t visit any special exhibitions myself, they often provide a lead to a new author or illustrator I might not have come across through browsing in our library or local bookshop and Lisbeth Zwerger is a case in point.

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is currently hosting an exhibition of this Austrian illustrator I had not previously heard of, and so I decided to track down what I could by her. The only book available in our whole library system was Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger, retold by Anthea Bell. Despite its small size and it being the only offering I could get hold of without spending money, it’s a gem of a little book full of utterly gorgeous illustrations. Lisbeth Zwerger is indeed a wonderful, exciting discovery.

The story of Hansel and Gretel, like so many great fairy stories, is perhaps not for the faint hearted. There’s a wicked stepmother who wants to abandon the two children of her new husband in the forest to meet whatever dreadful fate may befall them. There’s an evil witch who captures the children and attempts to eat them up. But there is also something which at least my 2 children have the happiest dreams about – a house made of cakes and confectionery, that Hansel and Gretel nibble from. What a delicious fantasy!

This version of Hansel and Gretel doesn’t disguise the evil intent of the stepmother and the witch and this, combined with the fact that the text does not feel simplified or abbreviated (there are perhaps 10 or 15 longish sentences on each page) meant M got much more out of it than J.

The illustrations are stunning, reminding me a little of muted Carl Larsson and Edmund Dulac, with an apparently looser yet very effective use of watercolour to suggest different atmospheres. These are definitely the sort of images that I’d love to have hanging on my wall as well as in the books I read with my children.

What else could we do once we had read this treat of a book other than make our own house out of cake and sweets? Making a gingerbread house is a Christmas tradition in some families – but we couldn’t wait till Christmas for this sugar extravaganza. Here’s how we did it.

I used the basic recipe for gingerbread from Good Food – this recipe is a UK one, so the ingredients and quantities are easy for us over here. If you’re elsewhere in the world try googling “gingerbread house recipe + your country” to find a version tailored to your local setting. The Good Food recipe came with templates for our cottage which I printed out in triplicate and then M cut out the various different sections.

The girls added all the ingredients themselves to the pan – quite messy, but apparently the recipe is forgiving of kids liberally reinterpreting quantities!

The dough that’s created isn’t sticky – more like slightly oily homemade playdoh – and it was very easy for M to roll out.

For the “glue” I used Silver Spoon Royal Icing Sugar (found in my local supermarket), rather than the raw egg whites suggested in the Good Food recipe. It looks like regular icing sugar but the egg white (necessary for a really strong icing) has been dried and so any possible risks over salmonella are done away with – great if you’re dealing with kids who like to lick icing! Make the icing as thick as you can – just use the tiniest amount of water and make it about as thick as peanut butter. You’ll need to use something to hold up your walls/roof whilst they are drying. Tins and duplo worked well for us.

Decorating it is the best bit of all, and lovely to do with a whole crowd of people and lots of cups of tea!

Eating it isn’t too bad either – though the cake will last a long time, gradually just getting drier and drier. We’ve kept cakes for 3 weeks in the past and they’ve been fine.

Calorie overload for sure, but oh so much fun and definitely worthy of a fairy story!

Hansel and Gretel: *** (3 stars)

For another take on making a gingerbread house on a rather different scale, I’d recommend this episode of UK chef Heston Blumenthal’s cookery show where he creates a fairytale feast.

Whilst eating sweeties galore we’ve been listening to:

  • Gingerbread House by the Stardust Family Singers (yes, it has been a little weird listening to songs which mention Santa in September)
  • Hansel And Gretel’s Gingerbread House by Dennis Hysom
  • Big Rock Candy Mountain – the version by Harry McLintock on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?

  • …and of course we should have been listening to Humperdink’s opera Hansel and Gretel but I didn’t get my act together to get hold of this – so maybe I shall return to it for a Stories in Tune post.

    If you don’t feel like overloading on calories you could try these alternative activities that would pair well with Hansel and Gretel:

  • Make the gingerbread house but use all different sorts of nuts instead of sweets – I think this would look beautiful!
  • Make your own trail in a wood using stones or sticks to mark the way. Perhaps you and the kids could mark out the trail and leave a surprise at the end of it for whoever is curious enough to follow your trail.
  • Imagine what you could make with this Hansel and Gretel fabric, or this one

  • If you’d like to find out more about Lisbeth Zwerger, here are some resources:

  • Lisbeth Zwerger – Premier Children’s Storyteller. Article on Suite 101.
  • A selection of Zwerger’s work on show at The Carle – once you click through to the museum website, click on “Preview this exhibition”
  • View Zwerger’s illustrations for The Gift of the Magi, at Blog of an Art Admirer and History Lover

  • There are many illustrated versions of Hansel and Gretel. We’ve also enjoyed the version retold by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Emma Chichester-Clark (what a combination!). The illustrations are bright, colourful and much more like sugary confection than those of Zwerger’s, making for some interesting comparisons by M and me. For many more versions of Hansel and Gretel, take a look at this list over at Sur La Lune.

    I’m submitting this post for the Christmas Get Crafty over at Red Ted Art’s Blog. Yes, I know Christmas is a long way off but that’s exactly the idea – we’ll get great ideas from Maggy and then have time to implement them!

    If you’ve read any different versions of Hansel and Gretel with your kids I’d love to hear about them…

    12 Responses

    1. Margaret Perry

      Oh! I am so glad you discovered her. I always assumed she had a following in England. She really is marvelous–my favorite of her works is THE GIFT OF THE MAGI. But her illustrated Bible is the most beautiful I’ve come across.

    2. Fiddler

      Zwerger’s books are gorgeous, and our tiny little town library has six of them, which makes me very happy. I’m already thinking of ways to tie in The Canterville Ghost to our October homeschooling! Thanks for posting about her.

    3. Zoe

      Hi Margaret, Hi Fiddler, I’m envious of you having access to so many other Zwerger books. I must admit I’ve now ordered 2 from Amazon (you’ll have to wait and see which ones I’ve chosen but thanks for your tips!). As to the difference in popularity in the US and the UK I’ve just checked on the 2 Amazon sites to get a rough picture – the most popular Zwerger book on the uk site is ranked 173,619, whereas the most popular Zwerger book on the US site is ranked much higher – 59,658. I’m so much looking forward to seeing more of her work.

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