The Prince of Tarn materializes in Fred's room after the less than successful celebration of Fred's eleventh birthday. Fred is sure that his father has hired a kid to play the Prince, who had been the favourite literary creation of Fred's mother, a children's writer who died when Fred was five. But no. Gradually, Fred and his father realize that this overbearing, bad-tempered royal brat really is the Prince of Tarn, sent to them by his wizard and teacher Ezran. Why?
At first, it seems the Prince is there only because the wizard has lost patience with him again. But as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Tarn is in trouble, and that the Prince was sent to Fred and his father to save him from sharing the fate of his kingdom. As Fred and his bossy friend Rebecca unravel this mystery, the sadness that has pervaded Fred's life since his mother died gradually is resolved.
In literature, we want magic to be like those elaborate knot designs in The Book of Kells: full of intricate twists with all the ends turned neatly upon themselves and tied up seamlessly. Hazel Hutchins gives us this kind of magic in The Prince of Tarn. The Prince does not know he is a character in a book. Neither does Fred. The Prince had been created by Fred's mother in a fable of her own life, a story in which two young people escape unhappy lives to create peace and joy together. The Prince of Tarn is a metaphorical representation of Fred.
Fred's mother was a wonderful writer, but this did not save her from dying, and the happy life she wanted for her son has faded into a pale image of what it might have been. The story of the Prince has remained unrealized in an unpublished book until the night he appears in Fred's room, and now threatens to fade away forever. Why should stories have happy endings when life doesn't? The answer to this question is the key to Fred's happiness and the resolution of the troubles that beset Tarn.
Illustrations are provided by Ruth Ohi, Hutchins's boon companion in so many collaborations. This is a physically slight book with short chapters but there is nothing slight about the issues tackled here. The Prince of Tarn is never preachy or moralistic. In fact, the book is full of breezy, subtle humour. But Hutchins takes on big questions about art and life. In doing so, she touches the hearts of her characters in ways that change them forever. This book will touch the hearts and funny bones of many readers as well.
Janet McNaughton's To Dance at the Palais Royale recently won the Violet Downey IODE Award.