Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Secret Lives of Princesses

By Philippe Lechermeier
Illustrated by Rebecca Dautremer
Sterling, 2010
$19.95, ages 4-8, 88 pages

You've always been told not to judge books by their cover, but just this once, feel free to jump to assumptions.

For, what you see on the dust jacket of this book is as lovely as what's to come -- paintings so stunning, you'll wish you could frame them, only you won't because the book's too nice to pull apart.

The cover of this delightful spoof on princesses features an exquisitely painted princess with a heart-shaped cage for a crown and almond-shaped eyes looking askance -- remarkably, without upsetting the poise of her head.

Known as Princess Hot-Head, this self-assured gal only looks tame, for she's fond of spitting and dueling, and adores steak tartare. She's just one of more than 30 unusual ladies profiled in this amusing coffee table-size book by an imaginative French author named Lechermeier.

The princesses, painted with whimsical details, share the distinction of being obscure (well, until now), for not one of them has made it big in fairy tales or, in fact, been written about before.

Part of the appeal of Dautremer's style is that she draws out the ridiculous in each princess in a dignified way. Many of the ladies have exaggerated proportions that reflect their odd behaviors yet even when those behaviors aren't flattering or their hygiene is questionable, they still look elegant.

Take the image of the Eco Princess, an exotic gal whose sandy blond hair is spun on her head like cotton candy and is held up with tree vines and inhabited by birds, who I must share, have the delightful habit of whispering secrets in her ears. She's stunning to behold, but what a tangled mess she wears!

Each of these gals strives so passionately for what they believe in that you can't help but delight in their peculiarities, like Princess Barbara of Babel who's mastered the slang of Texas and Azerbaijan, and Princess Quartermoon who sends smoke signals to friends like regular girls text.

Some are quite successful in their pursuits, like Princess Sticky Fingers, who pilfers wherever she goes, but others have a rather sad time of it, such as Princess Claire Voyant, who spends most of her wakeful hours predicting the future even though she's usually wrong.

Many of the ladies could be described as outcasts of traditional princess society and what's odd is that few seem interested in rising above their eccentricities, perhaps because they know they can get away with being indulgent.

Princess Somnia, for instance, is always lounging on a cloud of pink comforters because it's the way it's always been. Descended from a line of do-nothings, as well as the lovely Snow White (who, I must add in defense, did pitch in and help the dwarves clean), she rules by the motto: "Be quiet -- I'm sleeping."

Others have no choice to change and try to make the best of who they are. Princess For-A-Day, as you might infer, exists for only a day, but what a day. She flits around the garden as graceful as a dragonfly breathing in the perfume of flowers and listening to the flattery of princes.

Some ladies amuse you with their strange behavior, like Princess Primandproper, who doesn't laugh because it causes her bun to come undone. Others have you laughing aloud, like Princess Babbling Brooke, who dishes out a lot of blah, blah, blah and tralala, but is great to have along in battle.

That's when she gets out her megaphone and spews words at attacking armies, causing them to retreat with their ears ringing.

In between profiles, Lechermeir describes all manner of princessy things, including their etiquette, diet, living quarters and obstacles to ascendancy in the castle. He even plants a few quirky diversions that catch you by surprise.

My favorite is a page that's washed with shades of sky blue paint and is made to look as if it was taped back together. At the center is a vintage fan unplugged from the wall and below to the side in small lettering is a tip for making best use of it:

"Speak directly into it while revealing your secrets and your voice will be disguised."

My Favorite Princess: Princess Paige, a pear-shaped gal with spectacles sagging on her nose. She sits in a chair reading a book as her bare toes mingle together and tiny cutout letters spill around her voluminous skirt.

Off to the left, you see a teardrop the size of a freckle that's dropped on the page and are cautioned never to blot it, for a princess's tear has inspired the most lovely phrases.

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