Monday, April 11, 2011

Thinking Girl's Treasury of Real Princesses by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Albert Nguyen

I'm writing this a few weeks before our library's "Royal Wedding Party." I have to say, it wasn't my idea - I wasn't even really aware of the wedding and don't personally see a need to celebrate the nuptials of two celebrity tourist attractions from another country.

Ahem. However, I have been informed by all the staff that the royal wedding is BIG and patrons will be excited - and we have quite a few people signed up. It will be only little kids, since scheduling and space required us to book it during the day (April 28 at 12:30 to be precise).

The high circulation numbers of princess titles and those picture books rife with glitter, pinkness, and fancy illustrations bears out the popularity of the happy ever after fairy tale, as perpetuated by Disney. As a public library, I have a responsibility to supply the materials people want - not necessarily the ones I feel they should want. Most of my parents seem perfectly happy to encourage and indulge their small daughters in a passion for all things related to the popular view of princesses, with a massive dose of pink thrown in. I try to buy titles with a little more substance, like Princess Gown by Linda Strauss or the Ella Bella Ballerina series by James Mayhew. I'm usually pretty happy with the Fancy Nancy titles as well. I've tried to booktalk some alternate princess titles like Jane Yolen's Not all princesses dress in pink, but with less success.

I was interested to take a look at a new series from goosebottombooks featuring a variety of princesses. I'm going to look at these titles in chronological order...

Hatshepsut of Egypt. We first read about Hatshepsut's early life as her father's favorite and are given some context of Egyptian culture of the time period. The history goes on to tell of Hatshepsut's time as pharaoh and how she enriched Egypt with trading as well as exploratory journeys. There is a discussion of the mystery of the defacement of Hatshepsut's images and history. The story includes a list of pronunciations, maps, photographs, illustrations, a family tree of the 18th dynasty, description of the clothing Hatsheptsut would have worn and the food she ate. The book presents Hatshepsut as little-known, compared to her younger brother Tut, but I guess my education was more thorough, since I knew everything in here, except the expedition to Punt which sounded interesting.

Artemisia of Caria. This one I didn't know anything about. I knew about Xerxes huge invasion of Greece, but I didn't know that one of his admirals was a woman - the queen of Caria. Bridges does a really good job of filling in the rather sketchy information about this queen with information about Greece's history and culture, maps, illustrations, and speculation on what might have happened. A final section titled "the not-so-nice part of her story" talks about the darker side of Artemisia's heroism.

Sorghaghtani of Mongolia. Now things are getting interesting. I knew a little bit about Genghis Khan and his legacy of rulers, but I was only vaguely aware of his powerful daughter, Sorghaghtani. She controlled and administered her husband's lands while he was away fighting - and when he was killed. Later, she secured her sons' futures with skill and intelligence, triumphing over powerful and aggressive relatives and assuring the future of a powerful dynasty by her training of her sons who became a united and unstoppable quartet of rulers. A final section tells us how successful and powerful her sons were, carrying on her legacy of just and successful government.

Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman. I was completely fascinated by this story. I never thought about Persia past the rule of King Xerxes. There's a lot of stuff left out of history books! Qutlugh went from a minor noble family to slavery to two forced and short-lived marriages. Finally, she married a prince who gave her freedom and love - and Qutlugh became so influential and beloved that shen her husband died both her people and overlord agreed to make her ruler of Kirman. Under her rule, Kirman became peaceful and prosperous. She twice requested mercy for nobles who plotted against her and even on her deathbed cared for the poor.

Nur Jahan of India. This book also focuses on a woman who became a power behind the throne - but Nur Jahan did it all while maintaining purdah, the complete seclusion required of women of her caste and position. After an unhappy marriage, Nur Jahan eventually married the prince she had fallen in love with as a child and he elevated her to senior wife. Her name was added to royal edicts and British ambassadors noted that she had complete power over the emperor. Nur Jahan used her power to improve the condition of women, abolishing the practice of suttee. However, when her husband died Nur Jahan backed the wrong prince and was exiled, although she continued to care for the poor.

Isabella of Castile. This princess I knew a bit more about. Isabella didn't wait for a prince to rescue her from her precarious political position and powerful brother - she chose her own husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. She also insisted on maintaining her power, requiring Ferdinand to sign an agreement that would keep the power of Castile in her hands. After much argument and negotiation, Ferdinand eventually shared power evenly with her - of his own Aragon as well as Castile. Isabella was heavily involved in their successful war to annex Grenada, Creating the country of Spain we now today. She was also, as most people know, the one who backed Christopher Columbus, making Spain a wealthy and powerful nation. Bridges doesn't shy away from the dark side of Isabella's reign though, and talks about the thousands of people killed in her war of conquest of Grenada, backing of the Inquisition, and how she was indirectly responsible for the atrocities of the conquistadors in the Americas.

Each of these books includes maps, illustrations, photos, a section on what the princess would have worn and eaten and the stories themselves are a strong blend of cultural and geographic history and the personal story of each of the women featured. Two things I would have changed - the heavy use of parenthesis and asides was very distracting and I would have liked to see some further reading and/or sources listed for the information given in the books.

Of course, the big question is, will princess-crazy girls pick up these books? Girls under six - I would say no. They are attracted by the heavy glitter, sparkly pink, and familiar movie characters. These books, although written simply and clearly, discuss war, politics, and marriage as well as concepts of independence and power. Little girls are going to want to stick to their Fancy Nancy. However, these would be great read alouds for 6-8 and good choices to hand to the 8 and up crowd. Squeamish parents will probably want to censor some of the information for younger kids, but these are generally a good choice for older girls who want more "real" stories. Wean your girls from glitter and tiaras to these solid, fascinating fare.

Verdict: I wasn't as interested in the two well-known (at least to me) characters, Hatshepsut and Isabella of Castile, but if you're going to purchase these you'll want the whole series, since they refer to each other. They're well-written and presented and would make a high-interest addition to a public or school library collection. Recommended.

Published October 2010 by Goosebottom; Review copies provided by publisher through Raab Associates

Isabella of Castile
ISBN: 9780984509843

Nur Jahan of India
ISBN: 9780984509850

Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman
ISBN: 9780984509836

Sorghaghtani of Mongolia
ISBN: 9780984509829

Artemisia of Caria
ISBN: 9780984509812

Hatshepsut of Egypt
ISBN: 9780984509805


Brimful Curiosities said...

We read The Princess Gown this week. It's a lovely wedding dress story. My daughter and son designed their own paper doll wedding dresses. We're also reading aloud "The Ordinary Princess" and "The Runaway Princess."

Jennifer said...

Oh yes, those are all fun stories! I ilove the Princess Gown.