September 14, 2017
(+++) WHO AM I, ANYWAY?
The Princess Imposter. By Vivian Vande Velde. Scholastic. $16.99.
Confidentially Yours #6: Vanessa’s Design Dilemma. By Jo Whittemore. Harper. $6.99.
Vivian Vande Velde’s offbeat ways of handling fairy tales are always fun to read, even when she is not at her best – as she is not in The Princess Imposter. The basic concept of the book is right out of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, with two characters changing places to learn what each other’s life is like and eventually ending up wiser and with a better understanding of themselves and the world. Vande Velde neatly pulls the idea into fairy tales by using the old trope of a changeling: fairies are known to exchange one of their own for a human infant, so why not have them make a similar exchange (although only for three days) for a preteen princess? Well, all right. So we get: “Princess Gabriella used to dream of the wonders of the fairy kingdom, its delicacy and its magic. She just knew that if she could pay the fairies a visit, all the beautiful things in her own royal life would seem ordinary and even dull by comparison. When she actually got to meet the fairies, though, things did not work out quite the way she expected.” That sounds about right, but no – actually this is what we don’t get, and that is the flaw in the setup of what is otherwise an enjoyable exchanging-places book. Vande Velde instead has Princess Gabriella kidnaped by the fairies in what humans and fairies alike agree is an exceptional situation, since she is not an infant – and once she is exchanged for a fairy named Phleg, the princess is bullied, abused physically and mentally, repeatedly humiliated, and made to go hungry. This is not the recipe for an amusing book, especially because Phleg wants to change places so as to win a bet with her annoying brother, Parf. In other words, the Twain formula has both sides interested in the exchange, or at least thinking that it might be interesting, and as a result the various mishaps are balanced and the learning-about-oneself is, too. But in The Princess Imposter, only one girl wants or has thought about this sort of exchange, so the other is at a distinct disadvantage and is badly treated into the bargain. True, the book is called The Princess Imposter rather than The Princess and the Imposter, so presumably Vande Velde wanted the focus to be on Phleg more than on Gabriella; but the fact remains that there is more awkwardness to the tale-telling here than is usual in Vande Velde’s books. The good news is that things proceed considerably more smoothly after the initial chapters in which Gabriella is mistreated and misused – and all the chapters involving Phleg are handled with Vande Velde’s usual wit and charm. Of course the whole book turns on the idea of finding out who you really are and where your skills really lie. Phleg meets Prince Frederic, to whom Gabriella was betrothed in childhood, and after a series of misunderstandings (Phleg uses magic to look just like Gabriella, but she knows almost nothing about the ways of humans), he falls in love with her and she with him. That is, the prince falls in love with Phleg, and at the very end of the book finds her even more beautiful when she resumes her fairy form than in her disguised appearance. As for Gabriella, she slowly learns some fairy ways – even though she never had any desire to do so – and eventually brings her royal human abilities with words and analyses to get Parf’s father out of a very serious legal situation into which he has been thrust by the machinations of a bad-guy fairy relative. Vande Velde realizes that the nature of the two girls’ relationships is not quite equal: she ends the book with happily-ever-after for Phleg and Frederic but says of the budding relationship between Gabriella and Parf, “that one took a little more work.” Nevertheless, all’s well that ends well – although in the case of The Princess Imposter, all’s well even when not all begins well.
Jo Whittemore’s Confidentially Yours series began five books prior to Vanessa’s Design Dilemma, and by this sixth book you would think that middle-school would-be clothing designer Vanessa Jackson would have a sense of who she is and where she is going. But no – each of these books (each narrated by a different girl in a group at Abraham Lincoln Middle School united primarily by involvement in an advice column called “Lincoln’s Letters”) poses a different difficulty and gives each protagonist a chance to explore, on a very superficial and easy-to-read level, a different aspect of her developing personality. In the case of Vanessa’s Design Dilemma, there are two issues. One is that somebody is bullying the people who submit personal letters about embarrassing problems to the advice column. Vanessa and the others involved in the column need to figure out who is undermining the column and why – and put a stop to the trouble. The other issue is that Vanessa is co-leader of KV Fashions (with friend Katie Kestler), and the girls are planning to introduce their designs to the entire town at a fashion show. They find out, to their surprise, that the buyer for a local boutique is interested in attending the show and may actually buy some of the designs – and that sets off a flurry of excitement along with what passes here for soul-searching. The problem is that Vanessa and Katie have a great sense of their own style and stylishness, but what they like is very, very different from what the boutique stocks. Do they stay true to themselves and their designs even though that means the boutique will not be interested? Or do they accept the real-world necessity of compromise and create items for the fashion show that resemble those they know the boutique favors and sells? This is a pretty narrow problem and is not likely to appeal to the preteen girls at whom this series is aimed, except for those who also consider themselves fashion-forward and care more about clothes and appearance than just about anything else. The lesson here, it turns out, is that the real world does not require or even desire compromise, and that staying true to yourself is the one and only way to succeed. That finding is quite out of tune with everyday real-world reality, but it works as a self-esteem builder and a way to create an “aww, too bad” moment when Vanessa finds out that her willingness to make compromises has had an effect that is opposite from the one she intended. Well, no matter – she and Katie have plenty of resilience, and the book ends on the same upbeat note as all the previous ones and, it is safe to say, the ones still to come. And yes, the person responsible for the advice-column problems is caught and suitably punished – by being maneuvered into helping KV Fashions have a successful show. It is a fair bet that Vanessa and the other girls who narrate the Confidentially Yours series will be back again (and again) with more situations through which they need to learn who they really are and how many limits they face as a result (hint: not many).