Here is a retelling of the wonderful Grimm's fairy-tale in which a king, puzzled by his twelve daughters' exhaustion in the morning and the sorry state of their dancing shoes, promises the hand of one of them to the suitor who can solve the mystery. Aimed at a very young audience, this is a spartan version with many of the original details edited out; the lack of descriptive language is unfortunate. A part of the story I've always enjoyed is the tension created by the young suitor's invisible presence. This can be quite a compelling piece of story-telling, as one sister is troubled by the mysterious noises of twigs breaking while they move through the magical gardens, and her intuition of an unseen presence. Jane Ray has opted for a simple vocabulary that does not make us feel the young woman's agitation.
All subtleties are left to the illustrations, and they are magnificent. The illustrator has been inspired by a broad range of artistic references. Folk art, early Renaissance frescoes, Arabic and Indian manuscripts, block-printed fabrics and wallpapers all have a presence here. There is an evocation and blending of past styles, and the effect is as pleasant as having a number of good friends all in the same room: gold illuminates a lapis sky, pale rubbed earthen colours bring to mind a favourite fresco, flat patterns and fanciful gardens are reminiscent of Islamic manuscripts. Patterned borders with gold highlights enhance the illumination theme. On some pages collage is subtly used to amuse the sharp observer. Bits of botanical prints, maps, printed music, Islamic and other scripts are integrated into the rich mix of patterns. Architectural details, especially elaborate column capitals, are lifted from a printed source.
The princesses themselves are a multicultural bunch: some golden, some dark; some Eastern, some Hispanic; some Slavic. But all of their faces are strong and individual. They are lavishly dressed but they do not look frail or confined by their clothes; two wear glasses. These are strong-willed young women, not exquisite dolls.
This is a book to savour in a one-on-one snuggle with a young child, lingering over the illustrations and enjoying their complexities. I would not recommend it in a library or school class setting, because the language does not lend itself to an expressive reading, but it is certainly one of the most visually interesting books I've seen. l
Sylvia Lassam is a librarian and a mother.