In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Thirteen motherless princesses

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Before we move on to wonderful parents, I want to write about two more motherless-girl fairy tales that have been getting a lot of play in our house lately.

The first is Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China, retold by Ai-Ling Louie and illustrated by Ed Young.  According to the author's note, this is a version of the oldest Cinderella story on record, dating from the T'ang dynasty (618-907 A.D. -- the first European version is dated 1634.)  It has many of the traditional Cinderella elements: orphaned girl is worked to the bone by her stepmother and mean stepsister, is eventually helped by a magical figure, gets to go to the ball, loses a precious slipper, finds it again, and marries the prince.  The twists: Yeh-Shen's only friend is an enormous fish she has raised.  After her stepmother discovers him and kills him, Yeh-Shen's magic spirit, in the form of an old man, tells her to find the fish's bones and use their magic.  It is the fish bones which provide Yeh-Shen with food, and eventually a dress and golden slippers to go to the banquet.  The king doesn't actually see her there, but is presented with her lost slipper and falls in love with the idea of the tiny-footed woman who might wear it.  (It's a wonder that Cinderella stories didn't give all the women in our family major complexes about the size of our beautiful large feet.)  He uses the slipper to set a trap for Yeh-Shen, she comes to get it, he falls in love.  Oh, and the last sentence has the stepmother and stepsister being killed in an avalanche.  It's an interesting variation, well-written, and the drawings are gorgeous.

I've mentioned before that Eleanor is, like every other girl in America, really into princesses.  If one princess is good, how much better to have an even dozen, all lushly illustrated in full-scale ball gowns?  The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a strange story, and one I'd forgotten.  This version is told by Marianna Mayer, and illustrated by K.Y. Kraft.  Their mother has of course died, and to keep them out of trouble, their father the king locks them into their bedroom every night.  Yet every morning, they're exhausted, and their dancing slippers are worn through.  What's going on?  The answer lies in the Twilight World, where they go every night for what is essentially a waltzing rave.  They bring a number of princes down with them, and make them drink a potion which freezes their hearts and leaves them only the love of dance.  The princesses' secret is discovered by a poor dreamy farmer named Peter, who becomes the castle gardener and falls in love with the youngest princess.  There's a happy ending for everyone.  I love how weird this book is -- the Twilight World has no explanation, and the princesses seem perfectly happy to live their secret night-time lives; Eleanor adores the dresses.  So we're both happy.

Love, Annie

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