The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker
Writing a critical review for a book as harmless and fluffy as The Frog Princess makes me feel awful, almost like I’m unnecessarily picking on a little girl in the corner who is minding her own business and trying to quietly read her book. But the fact remains that although The Frog Princess is a diverting and easy-to-read story, it’s also rather patchy and forgettable. Quite simply: there are better books to be read to your kids, and plenty that include frogs and princesses.
Princess Emeralda (or “Emma” as she prefers) is suffers from a domineering mother and an arranged marriage. She has a witchy-aunt to keep her company, but sadly Aunt Grassina has gone on a journey to places unknown… just in time for Emma to get herself into serious trouble. Having met a talking-frog in the swamplands around the castle, the so-called Prince Eadric coaxes a kiss out of the princess in the hopes that she’ll break the spell cast over him. In the book’s central conceit, the kiss has quite the opposite effect: Emma is turned into a frog.
Now struggling to control her new body and its taste for insects, Emma joins up with Eadric in the attempt to break the curse that now binds both of them. What follows is a range of mini-adventures in which the froggy couple come up against several obstacles in their journey to reach Emma’s castle and (hopefully) find an answer to their predicament. Such adventures include a wannabe witch, a thieving otter, a grumpy fairy, and various other talking animals that help or hinder their passage home. Other even minor characters, such as a dragon and a nymph, do neither, being introduced into the story only to disappear again just as quickly. Often the language is too contemporary for the setting: “he thought I had a crush on him” and “give me a break!” are two examples, as well as a character called “Li’l Stinker.”
Narrated in first-person by Emma, the tone is breezy and cheerful, with a comedic edge that keeps the pace moving. Without her voice, I suspect the adventures would be more tedious than enjoyable. Emma herself is of the new breed of princesses who are swiftly becoming just as much a stereotype as their swooning, damsel-in-distress predecessors. She’s rebellious, she’s opinionated, she’s unconventional, and her defining feature is — you guessed it — clumsiness. What is it with girls these days that they can’t walk in a straight line without (in the most endearing way possible, of course) tripping over themselves?
Eadric is arrogant, boastful and self-centered, constantly asking Emma for more kisses as the adventure continues, and he doesn’t seem to have improved much by his stint as a frog. It’s his own fault that he’s under a spell in the first place (he insulted a witch, and not accidentally either) and although I can appreciate the fact that he’s not a typical prince-charming either in or out of his frog-skin, I also felt that Emma could have done much better for herself.
The little girl in the corner reading her book now has tears in her eyes, and I feel unaccountably guilty. How can I criticize a book that features a crowned frog on a pink cover? It’s not hurting anyone! Despite its flaws, readers of a certain age and gender will certainly enjoy this fractured fairytale, and as I browse the online bookstore, I can see that there are several sequels that no doubt continue the adventures of Emma and Eadric, suggesting some level of regular readers.
But I think the problem is that library bookshelves everywhere are currently flooded with retold, updated and/or fractured fairytales, many of which feature a royal amphibian under a spell…and many of these other efforts are simply much better than what is presented here. Just off the top of my head, I can recommend Donna Jo Napoli’s: The Prince of the Pond: Otherwise Known as De Fawg Pin or The Frog Prince: Continued by Jon Scieszka, two other authors who have taken the traditional fairytale and heartily skewered it with a lot more wit and imagination.
Then there’s Water Song: A Retelling of the Frog Prince in the Once Upon a Time series that moves the story into a WWI setting, or the beautiful picture book A Frog Prince by Alix Berenzy who (like Baker) plays with a similar twist in the transformation sequence.
I also recall the short-stories “Toad” in Patricia McKillip’s Harrowing the Dragon or “The Frogskin Slippers” by Meredith Ann Pierce in Waters Luminous and Deep. And John Cleese seems to love playing royal talking frogs in animated movies: he’s done so in The Swan Princess and Shrek 2. I can even remember the story being used in the old King’s Quest computer games in which Princess Rosella has to drop a golden ball into a lily pond in order to kiss the frog and obtain his crown.
The fact is that the market is full of froggy stories, and The Frog Princess gets buried under all this competition! The tale of the Frog Prince is a popular fairytale for authors to explore, (with its themes of transformation, beauty-under-the-skin, and just-desserts), and sometimes I don’t recommend a book, not because there’s something wrong with it, but simply because there are so many better books on the same subject matter out there.
I’m just going to leave the little girl in the corner alone and go find something else to read…
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