February 07, 2008


The Silk Princess. By Charles Santore. Random House. $17.99.

Princess Baby. By Karen Katz. Schwartz & Wade. $14.99.

      The only thing puzzling about The Silk Princess is its age target of 3-7. Charles Santore’s book is too sophisticated for most children in that age range (certainly at the lower end of it), and his gorgeous illustrations may not be fully appreciated by kids under the 8-12 age range. This is a dreamlike story about a crucial occurrence in ancient China: the discovery of silk, one of the great secrets that China withheld from the rest of the world for millennia. Santore explains the tale’s origins in an Author’s Note at the end of the book, but kids (and parents) won’t need to read the explanation to be enchanted by the story. It involves Emperor Huang-Ti, Empress Lei-Tsu and their daughter, Hsi-Ling Chi, “whom he [the emperor] hardly noticed.” Hsi-Ling Chi, however, does notice things – specifically a cream-colored cocoon that falls into her mother’s teacup one day and then starts to unravel. Fascinated by the object, Hsi-Ling Chi ties the thread to her waist and takes a walk to see how far it will go. The result is a journey outside the palace, across a bridge guarded by a dragon, and into the Holy Mountains, where the princess meets a man with a loom who knows her name and has been waiting for her. The story follows the pattern of many myths – did it really happen to the princess, or did she dream it all? Either way, the adventure leads to the discovery of silk, which makes such fine clothing that the emperor notices his daughter at last. What readers will notice long before the end is the extraordinarily beautiful detail of Santore’s illustrations, which are very heavily influenced by Chinese art. The characters’ oversize heads, the poses of their bodies, the way Hsi-Ling Chi points with her right hand while holding flowers in her left as a butterfly hovers nearby, the looming exterior palace walls whose tops soar off the page, the mist-shrouded path to the bridge, the fine detail of every scale on the orange-eyed dragon – these and many more pleasures are there to be seen, as Santore weaves a tale of wonder as surely as the master weaver of Hsi-Ling Chi’s adventure weaves garments. This is a beautiful book to look at as well as a charming one to read.

      Princess Baby is charming, too, but in a different way. Intended for very young children, ages 1-5, it is the cute and simple story of a baby who objects to being called by all the usual endearments that adults use when addressing her. She is not a buttercup, cupcake or little lamb, she says, and Karen Katz’s adorable illustrations of these and other things that she is not are irresistible. The baby insists that people call her by her “real” name – which is, of course, Princess Baby. Decked out in sparkly gold crown and shoes, wearing a fancy dress and a cape, Princess Baby needs to “make sure that everyone in my kingdom is happy” by giving bottles to all her dolls and stuffed animals; and all is well until her parents come to her room and start calling her the wrong things: Creamsicle, Peanut, Missy Muffin. “Please call me by my real name!” says Princess Baby – and when her parents do just that, everything ends happily. This is the first book of a planned series, which has the potential to offer heaping helpings of cuteness if Katz continues it as she has begun it.

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