Friday, September 24, 2010

A Review of There's a Princess in the Palace: Five Classic Tales retold by Zoë B. Alley

Maybe you've had a chance to see A Wolf at the Door, the first oversized folk-/fairy tale collaboration by husband-and-wife team Zoë B. and R.W. Alley. This one continues in the same vein, though its pink cover and the word "princess" in the title may give its audience more of a gender bias. But I hasten to inform you that these are not prissy stories. In fact, they're pretty darn funny, and definitely feisty.

You think you know the stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Frog Prince, and The Princess and the Pea, but you've never seen them done quite like this. Just for example, one of the seven dwarves in this book is female; her name is Bethanne. And the Handsome Prince from stories #2 and #3 has this goofy way of repeating the narration in his lines of dialogue. It's almost as if the Brothers Grimm were stand-up comedians.

Now, in their first such collection, the Alleys tied the stories together with the recurring character of the wolf. Here they use a string of princess descendants plus one recurring character, a witch/evil fairy. Only the evil fairy gets to have a bit more of a personality here, not to mention a comical redemption at the end of the book. She plays the villain in both the Sleeping Beauty story and Snow White. For that matter, the Sleeping Beauty princess, who's a bit of a brat, gets to play Snow White, too! (She tells the prince at the end of SB that she's not quite ready for marriage, then wanders into the forest and pulls a Goldilocks on the seven dwarves.) This princess turns out to be the daughter of Cinderella, the mother of the princess in The Frog Princess, and the grandmother of the girl in The Princess and the Pea. Whew! It's a lot easier to follow in the book, trust me.

The best thing about There's a Princess in the Palace is that it's presented in comic book format, alternating narration with dialogue. The second best is that it includes pop culture commentary along the lines of the movie version of Shrek. Well, nothing so easily dated. For instance, when the Cinderella prince's parents tell him they're going to host a ball so they can find him a bride, he asks, "Don't I have any say in this?" To which the king replies, "Of course not! This is the 15th century!" And his mother remarks, "Our son—such a comedian!" My favorite of these little interpositions has got to be Cinderella's, when she's slaving away in the kitchen: "Why are they always so mean to me? I wish chocolate cupcakes were invented—they would make me feel better!"

Another way the five stories are tied together is by a couple of mice who provide a running commentary, but they are not the Disney mice from Cinderella. They're more like Statler and Waldorf, those two old guys in the balcony on Sesame Street. For example, when bratty Princess Dawn (Sleeping Beauty) says "Daaaaaad!" one mouse observes, "Nice whining!" and the other says, "Yes, very well done!" (Adds Queen Cinderella, "When I was her age, I was sweeping cinders out of fireplaces—but that's another story!")

R.W. Alley's artwork is loose and cartoon-like, his characters warm and ordinary looking—like a cross between Maurice Sendak's people and Bob Graham's. Besides, it will be nice, unnoticeable parent propaganda for your kids to see princesses who don't look like Barbie dolls! I should note that the large trim size, though it may seem a little unwieldy, allows for generous spreads in which the author and illustrator can properly develop each of the five stories within a short span of pages.

The Alleys have a great time with these fairy tales, and you will, too. The Wolf at the Door was a lot of fun, but this team has upped the ante with their second fairy tale outing: There's a Princess in the Palace is just delightful!

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