Review of the Day: The Perilous Princess Plot by Sarah Courtauld
Considering that I will never but EVER write an early chapter book or, for that matter, an easy book for new readers, it’s funny how often I sit around contemplating their difficulty. More precisely, I want to know which ones are more difficult to write. Easy books sounds like they’d be the hardest, particularly since it is remarkably hard to siphon a book down to its most essential parts while also making it interesting. Then again, those early chapter books are the devil. We see whole bunches of them published every year but how many are the type you’d like to read to your kids at bedtime over and over and over again? Nothing against Magic Treehouse, but would it kill Mary Pope Osborne to include just one tiny giant name Bonnet? Or have her characters fake The Black Death with the aid of turnip soup? I guess that’s what’s so great about Sarah Courtauld’s early chapter book import The Perilous Princess Plot. Not only is it sublime bedtime reading, it’s also perfect for transitioning kids to longer books, AND it’s knock your socks off funny. Goat and gruel, there’s something for everyone here. Unless you hate humor. Then you’re out of luck.
Meet Lavender. Interests include princesses, being a princess someday, handsome princes, and princesses (did I mention that one?). Meet her younger sister, Eliza. Interests include not hearing Lavender mention anything fairy tale related ever ever again (to say nothing of her singing). The two live in the Middle of Nowhere, in the Forgotten Corner of the Kingdom, in the realm of Squerb and their lives are pretty ordinary. Ordinary, that is, until Lavender gets herself kidnapped by the villain Mordmont who is hoping to ransom a pricey princess. Now it’s up to Eliza and her trusty steed/goat Gertrude to rescue Lavender (whether she wants to be rescued or not) and to generally save the day. There just might be a couple odd pit stops to attend to first.
It’s interesting. An author has a lot of ways of making a protagonist sympathetic to the her readership. Often in children’s books an instantaneous way is to make them the recipient of unfair treatment. Nothing captures hearts and minds more swiftly or efficiently than good old-fashioned outrage on behalf of your heroine and that’s certainly how Courtauld begins the book, with Eliza mucking out the goat pen as Lavender tra la las about. However, the real way in which you bond with Eliza is through your mutual annoyance with Lavender. Lavender is sort of what would happen if Fancy Nancy ever got so swallowed up in a princess obsession that she became unrecognizable to her family. Courtauld was quite clever to make Lavender the older sibling too. We’ve all seen the younger-princess-obsessed sibling motif in various books and while I’ve nothing against it, there’s something particularly grating when someone who, by dearth of age alone, should know better yet doesn’t.
In a given day you probably won’t read many early chapter books for kids that feel like the cast of Monty Python meandered out of retirement to write a book for children. Funny? Baby, you don’t know the half of it. Funny is hard. Funny is difficult. Funny is almost impossible to pin down because everyone’s sense of humor is different in some way from everyone else’s. But I simply refuse to believe that there’s a kid out there who could read this book and not crack a smile once. Here, I’ll give you an example. Early in the story the evil villain Mordmont is depressed. As he says, “I’m a man of simple pleasures . . . All I ever wanted was a castle, my own pride of lions, a jeweled crown, a choir of elves singing me awake each morning, sainthood, the power to make gold, the best mustache in Europe, a Jacuzzi, an elephant from the Indies, another one to be its friend, a singing giraffe, the power of invisibility, Magic Cheese Powers, a tiger with the feet of a lamb, the head of a lamb, and the body of a lamb – basically, a lamb – power over the sea, power over the letter C . . .” at which point we’re told that another 4,235 simple pleasures are to be skipped over so that we can fast forward to the final one, “a meringue that speaks Japanese.” It’s the lamb part that really got me. Love that lamb.
So let’s say you’re writing an early chapter book and you have the chance to illustrate it yourself. Do you do so? Particularly if it’s your debut novel? Yep. I’ve checked out her CV and from what I can tell Ms. Courtauld isn’t exactly a trained artist. In this respect she reminds me not a little of Abby Hanlon, another hilarious early chapter book author/self-taught illustrator whose Dory Fantasmagory is largely aided by her seemingly effortless pencilings. In this book too the art is deceptively simple. Just pencil sketches of silly tiny things, really. Yet I tell you right now that if some fancy pants illustrator walked up and said they’d redo the whole thing for free, I’d turn ‘em down flat. Courtauld has this perverse little style (in the best possible way, naturally) that just clicks with her storytelling. Some of it is obvious, like the view of a tearful rhino forced to watch Swan Lake, and some are visual gags so cheap that you just want to physically hug the book itself (like the image of people poking a girl after Mordmont talks about losing at poker). And how many early chapter book British imports can you name that contain images of Kanye West? I rest my case. Check and mate, babies.
According to a number of reputable sources this book has, “won the Sainsbury’s Book Award, and has been shortlisted for the Sheffield Children’s Book Prize and Coventry Inspiration Book Award.” In the U.K. it was also originally released with the title Buckle and Squash and the Monstrous Moat-Dragon. I’m not entirely certain why the U.S. publisher chose to change that one. Perilous plots are nice and all but they can’t really hold a candle to freakin’ moat dragons, now can they? I mean, it’s a dragon! In a moat! Still, a title change is a small price to pay when you get a book as good as this one. Hand it to a boy, hand it to a girl, hand it to a goat, they’ll all enjoy it in their own ways (though the goat may need a bit of a floss afterwards). If there are more Buckle and Squash books on the horizon, let us hope they float our way. I, for one, will look forward to those adventures. After all, the Monty Python guys can’t live forever. Time for someone else to pick up the torch.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
- How to Train Your Dragon by Cassandra Cowell
- Moldylocks and the Three Beards by Noah Z. Jones
Other Blog Reviews: Reading Rumpus
And here’s the book jacket whut wuz in Britain.
Misc: Read the first chapter here.
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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