May 01, 2014


The Worst Princess. By Anna Kemp. Illustrations by Sara Ogilvie. Random House. $16.99.

I Pledge Allegiance. By Pat Mora & Libby Martinez. Illustrated by Patrice Barton. Knopf. $16.99.

Abuelo. By Arthur Dorros. Illustrated by Raúl Colón. Harper. $17.99.

     It can be fun to play games with well-worn notions – and fun in a very different way to explore them. The Worst Princess is very much on the “enjoyment” side of things, taking the specific well-worn notion of a princess being rescued by a prince and living happily ever after – and turning it upside-down. This princess is initially quite willing to go along with fairy-tale traditions, and she waits and waits for her prince to come – but when he finally does, he turns out to be, in her own word, a “twit,” and she soon finds that her adventurous spirit cannot handle being confined in the traditional princely castle, wearing the traditional rescued-princess gowns, and doing what the prince says: “Just smile a lot and twist your curls./ Dragon-bashing’s not for girls.” Well, maybe not, but this princess has her own ideas about dragons, and bashing is not among them. Sure enough, a dragon does show up, but instead of screaming for help, the princess forms an alliance with the fire-breather – after all, neither of them thinks much of the prince: “The dragon sniffed, then with two snorts,/ set alight the princely shorts!” And leaving the prince with his bottom aflame – well, actually sitting in a convenient pond, facing a sword-wielding, crown-wearing frog – princess and dragon race off together, “making mischief left and right/ for royal twits and naughty knights,” and then having a nice spot of tea before their next adventure. The whole turned-on-its-head approach of Anna Kemp’s story, with its delightfully apt versifying, is well complemented by Sara Ogilvie’s wonderfully silly illustrations, and although The Worst Princess will not by itself undo the attraction of fairy tales – and does not really intend to – it is certainly a salutary alternative to the more insipid notions of “proper” role models for princes and princesses alike. And dragons, for that matter.

     A far more serious look at a tradition, in this case a real-world one in the United States, I Pledge Allegiance is an age-appropriate look at what citizenship means, and stands as a loving tribute by Pat Mora and her daughter, Libby Martinez, to Libby’s real-life great-aunt, around whose experience the book is built. A Mexican immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in her 70s, Libby’s great-aunt explained that the American flag made her feel “safe and warm,” and that is just what she says in this slightly fictionalized story to a little girl named, yes, Libby. In the book, Libby calls her great-aunt “Lobo,” meaning “wolf,” and it is a nickname of endearment – created in the real world, the authors explain, because Libby’s real-world great-aunt used to refer to the children as her lobitos (little wolves). The sense of endearment and close family connections pervades I Pledge Allegiance, which on the surface is the story of an elderly woman preparing to become a U.S. citizen, with little Libby helping by herself learning the Pledge of Allegiance and memorizing it. There are legitimate concerns today about immigration issues – indeed, such concerns are as old as the United States itself – but this is a wholly apolitical book, and one whose focus on old-fashioned patriotism and love of country should appeal to families of all political viewpoints. The Pledge of Allegiance was far simpler when written in 1892 by Baptist minister and socialist Francis Bellamy (1855-1931) – it was a reaction to the decline in patriotic feeling as memories of the Civil War faded, and it simply said, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Mora and Martinez note at the end of their book that the pledge has been modified four times (more accurately, written once and modified three times), but they avoid any explanation of the changes and the controversy associated with them – for instance, the addition of “under God” in 1954 as a response to the perceived systemic atheism of Communism. What the authors want in I Pledge Allegiance – and what they get, thanks partly to the warmly humanizing illustrations of Patrice Barton and mostly to their memories of Libby’s real-life great-aunt – is to show why life in the United States is still so meaningful and important to so many people whose birth was elsewhere.

     Lobo does not forget her Mexican roots just because of her new citizenship, and the importance of heritage is made even clearer in Abuelo, another family-focused book whose fictional story is based on a real one. In this case, the setting is Argentina, with Arthur Dorros recounting a tale based on the life of one of his friends and the friend’s abuelo gaucho (grandfather cowboy). In the book itself, in well-written prose seasoned with Spanish words that are clearly explained and do not slow down the reading for English-only speakers, Dorros recounts the story of a young boy, now older and remembering “when I was little” (the book’s first words, reminiscent of “once upon a time” in fairy tales). The boy recalls long rides with his abuelo, daytime mountain climbing, rainy days, clear nights filled with starshine, even an encounter with a mountain lion. The events are everyday ones – everyday on the Argentine pampas, in any case – and are lovingly shown in Raúl Colón’s atmospheric illustrations. And the story’s meaning only becomes clear later in the book, as the boy remembers moving away from the place where his abuelo lived – to the city, with a whole new set of challenges, which he is able to meet in part because of what he learned on horseback from his abuelo. “Little by little, I began to know the city. It was wide in different ways, like La Pampa.” The transition from countryside to city is in some ways very different from the experience of moving to an entire new nation, but its challenges are in other ways similar, and retaining family traditions and meanings is a very important way of coping with the new and difficult times brought by any major transition. The sensitivity with which the story of Abuelo is told and illustrated should resonate with any family that has to handle major life changes and needs to look at its own foundational beliefs and relationships in order to build a new life under new circumstances.

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