Review of the Day: The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett
The Princess and the Pig
By Jonathan Emmett
Illustrated by Poly Bernatene
Walker & Co. (a division of Bloomsbury)
On shelves now
The princess craze is a relatively new phenomenon. I’m sure that little girls have pretended to be princesses for as long as the occupation has existed, but the current concentrated capitalization on that desire has taken the obsession to a whole other level. You can’t enter a toy department these days without being bombarded with the idea that every little girl should wear pink, frilly, sparkly costumes and woe betide the child that might prefer a good unadorned set of overalls instead. Naturally, all this sank into the world of picture books after a while. Stories like The Paper Bag Princess were now being ignored while the latest pink monstrosity would suck up all the attention. So you can probably understand why I was a little reluctant to pick up The Princess and the Pig at first. My first instinct was to just throw it on the pile with the rest of the princessey fare. Fortunately, I heard some low-key buzz about the book, making it clear that there might be something worthwhile going on here. Thank goodness I did too. Ladies and gentlemen, two men have come together and somehow produced a book that thumbs its nose at the notion of a little girl wanting to be a princess. In fact, when it comes right down to it, this is a tale about how sometimes it’s difficult to tell the royalty from the swine. Now that’s a lesson I can get behind!
The day the queen didn’t notice that she dropped her baby daughter off of the castle’s battlements could have been horrific. Instead, it led to a case of switched identities. When a kindly farmer parks his cart beneath a castle so as to take a break, he doesn’t notice when a flying baby lands in the cart and launches upward the cart’s former inhabitant, baby piglet. The piglet lands in the baby’s bassinet and the queen, seeing a change in her daughter, is convinced that an evil fairy must be to blame. Meanwhile the baby, dubbed Pigmella, is promptly adopted by the kindly farmer and his wife. She grows up to love her life while Princess Priscilla, a particularly porcine royal, pretty much just acts like a pig. Years later the farmer and his wife figure out the switcheroo but when they attempt to right a great wrong they are rebuffed by the haughty royals. So it is that Pigmella gets to marry a peasant and avoid the chains of royalty while Priscilla has a wedding of her own . . . poor handsome prince.
Normally I exhibit a strong aversion to self-referential fairy tales. You know the ones I mean. The kinds of stories that act like the Shrek movies, winking broadly at the parents every other minute whether it serves the story or not. And certainly “The Princess and the Pig” never forgets for a second that it is operating in a fairytale land. The king in the queen in this book have a way of using fairytales to justify their already existing expectations and prejudices, constantly holding them up as the solution to their every problem. Rather than feel forced, the royals’ silliness is utterly consistent with their characters. It was only after I reread the book that I realized that while they are under the distinct impression that every problem begins and ends with magic, there actually isn’t any magic in this book. Just a basic case of baby swapping where everyone (except possibly the pig herself) is better for it.
You can find picture books where girls are happy not to be princesses but they are far outweighed by the standard princesses = awesome mindset. Part of what I liked so much about this book is that Pigmella does attempt to reclaim her princess title but only under duress. When it doesn’t work she’s perfectly content, “and never once wished that she’d been a princess.” She makes for a rather good role model, and it’s interesting to watch Mr. Emmett try to have it both ways. So as she grows up we hear that Pigmella “grew smarter and beautiful” in that order, not the other way around. Good good. There is the fact that she gets married at the end with all that this implies, but I saw the point of that to be less that girls must always get married in order that they may live happily ever after and more that it is just fine to live a life that’s fun and ordinary. Not everyone wants to be a princess, and that’s okay.
I now hereby dub Poly Bernatene my favorite Argentinean children’s author. The rest of you were very impressive and we’ll certainly keep your resumes on file but the position of Favorite Argentinean has now officially been filled. First off, I love what the man has done with light. Though this is apparently digital art it greatly resembles a mix of watercolors and pastels. With that in mind, Mr. Bernatene fills his scenes with ambient light, reflected sunlight, beams into warm castle settings, and a final church image that’ll knock your socks off. He even takes care to put little tiny details in his art that add to the story tenfold. There’s a shot of the Farmer, his wife, and Pigmella traveling to the castle near the end where she is to be exchanged for the pig. The shot is seen from a distance but if you look closely you’ll see that Pigmella has her head on her mother’s lap, her little feet dangling morosely off the back of the cart. Neither of them looks at all happy but they feel obligated to do the right thing. In another moment Mr. Bernatene pairs images of the two main characters opposite one another. On one side the pictures of Pigmella sit atop a piece of paper with little drawings in the margins. On the other side are pictures of Priscilla, the paper underneath the images bitten, torn, and stamped with suspiciously hoof-shaped prints. Love it!
I got very attached to the characters in this book. So much so that I felt this odd twinge of regret at one point when I saw little Pigmella playing outdoors and I thought that this was the life Priscilla the pig would have vastly preferred. Ah well. It all works out well in the end (with one heckuva unexpected finale). And in addition to its other charms this wouldn’t make a half bad adoption tale. Most adoption picture books go for the heartfelt and meaningful. Well next time a parent wants a collection of stories featuring adopted families, why not throw in something funny while you’re at it? Bound to lure in little princess-lovers, The Princess and the Pig is a bit of sly subversion just perfect for the preschooler set. Fun and funny, beautiful and smart, read the book and fail to be charmed. Go on. I dare you.
On shelves now.
Source: Borrowed final copy from library for review.
- Library Mice
- Reading Rumpus
- Writing on the Sidewalk
- Geo Librarian
- Young Readers
- A Picture Book a Day
- A star from Publishers Weekly
Filed under: Best Books of 2011, Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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