Review of the Day: The Princess and the Pea
Loved it. L-O-V-E-D it. Can't say it any clearer. Buy immediately. Posthaste. Quick as a wink. Immediately.
As a children's librarian I'm ever watchful and ever on the alert for the next Caldecott contender. I like picture books with a bit of oomph and pizzaz to them. I like picture books that try to do something a little different. I like picture books, in short, like Lauren Child's, "The Princess and the Pea". I picked this puppy up with the full expectation of getting something along the lines of yet another Charlie and Lola adventure. Instead I was stunned by the fabulous art I found. From its cover (cleverly designed to look like the cut-away with the chandelier is actually a giant pea) to its final pages where the book describes the artistic process, "Princess" has everything you're looking for in a great picture book, but with enough artsy-fartsy cache to lure even the stodgiest of adults.
Once upon a time there was a king, a queen, and a prince. The prince was of the right age to marry and his parents wanted him to find a suitable mate. The prince agreed to this plan but he wanted to marry for love. This would have been fine except that though he met all the nearby princesses, none of them had "a certain ... something about her". So the prince searched high and low for someone to love but no one was quite right. At the same time that the prince was getting depressed about this, a beautiful girl who lived in a treetop house started following the moon to see whether or not it was just as beautiful above and beyond the mountain as it was in her home. Of course this meant that she became hopelessly lost, but fortunately she stumbled across the king and queen's castle. And if you happen to know your classic "Princess and the Pea" story then you know what happens next. The characters in this book are all from the pen of Lauren Child but each one has been cut out, dressed up in real fabrics, and placed in very real sets. They move and dance and walk and sleep all within very real areas and are then photographed for this book. The result is luminous.
I ecstatically started talking up the charms of this book to a co-worker today when he pointed out, not unfairly, that Child's use of italics in the book is a bit... much. He had a point. There's nothing wrong with the writing itself. Child uses the same easy-going unassuming (yet charming) wordplay we've all grown so fond of in books like, "I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato" (winner of the book-more-adults-find-themselves-unable-to-pronounce award). Unfortunately that same set of words is fairly riddled with overenthusiastic italicizing. Every time I saw an adverb coming I felt like I had to duck or find myself over-emphasizing words that did not need to be over-emphasized. But some people won't even notice this and others won't find that it hurts the text a jot. I am in the latter category and certainly the book seems tailor-made to be loved.
Actually, it was the story that caught me off guard. At this moment in time picture book publishers are in the thick of a bit of post-modernity. When it comes to fairy tales, you're far more likely to find a book updating a stodgy old classic than telling a story straight. There are exceptions to this, of course, and "The Princess and the Pea" is one of them. The story (as you can see from my summary) is pretty darned faithful to the original. I found myself continually amazed that the book didn't teach that seeking a mate purely through their blue-blooded status was wrong. I was shocked that only princesses were considered as the rightful mates to the prince and that he, in turn, had no objection to having his potential dating pool so severely cut. But Child is charming. She gives you the original tale and then renders it so nice and sweet and funny that you completely forget that you're not supposed to enjoy a story that sticks so closely to its source material. The source material being, in this case, Hans Christian Andersen.
The only equivalent to this book I've seen before would be Abelardo Morrell's 1999 re-illustration of "Alice In Wonderland". In that book, the artist took Sir John Tenniel's original pictures, cut them out, and gave them a depth and originality I haven't seen the like of until now. One of the charms of "Princess" is that the back the book goes into a fair amount of detail describing how the illustrations for this story came to be. There is a mention that, "as in most doll's houses, not everything here is in scale". That may be, but if there are discrepancies then I must be blind to them. Plus photographer Polly Borland knows how to control everything from the sets to the lighting of a scene. So when Lauren Child said, "I love the paintings of Vermeer, his details and the way he allows you a glimpse into someone else's world", it was Borland's job to bring us a picture book series of Vermeer-like photographs. The result is marvelous. With an array of dollhouse furniture (including, I kid you not, a teeny tiny tureen of peas) at their fingertips the two artists have given us a book that takes an idea for a picture book like few others and manages to stab a jolt or two of gorgeousness into its veins.
I'm gushing. Sorry. I mean, photography in picture books can be used for good or for evil. Evil would be something like, "The Lonely Doll" by Dare Wright. Good would be this book. It'll lure the kiddies in with its promise of princesses right there in the title and it'll improve their budding little minds with its beauty and great choice of words. A must-have purchase from 2006.