The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton & Angela Barrett (illustrator)
I loved the story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses when I was a little girl, but was also terribly disappointed with it. Twelve sisters sneak out of a secret door in their bedroom every evening to dance the night away in a magical fairyland, with only their worn-out shoes left as evidence of their rule-breaking.
And then their father comes along to spoil all the fun, setting potential suitors outside their door in order to find out what’s going on, and eventually marrying the youngest (or oldest, depending on the version) to the clever gardener who discovers the secret. It was meant to be a happy ending, but with fairyland destroyed and the sisters all married off, my eight-year old self felt utterly cheated.
Luckily Jessie Burton is here to give us a much more satisfying take on the familiar story. Twelve young princesses (each with their own name and personal interests) are sequestered in the palace by their father after their mother’s tragic death in a motorcar accident. They’re bored and stifled, but behind a portrait of their mother in their windowless bedroom, they find a miracle.
A staircase takes them deep beneath the ground and through three beautiful forests to the shores of a lake. On the other side is a palace within a tree, filled with talking animals, delicious food and endless jazz music. A beautiful lioness assures them that they’re welcome there, and so the nightly tradition of dancing and music begins.
But when their father discovers their worn-out shoes, he’s determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. After banishing Frida (the eldest) from the kingdom, the younger eleven are terrified that one of the suitors he calls in will spill the beans on their wondrous secret and claim one of them as his wife.
They relax a little under a string of failures, but when a strapping young man lands his plane on the beach beneath the palace walls, they’re afraid. He seems much cleverer than the others…
Jessie Burton probably felt the same way about the original story that I did, and so spins a lovely new version that keeps the familiar beats, but subverts nearly everything else (I won’t give away the big twist at the end, but it’s great!)
From the princesses reimagined as dark-skinned girls with natural hair, to the story being set in the fictional country of Kalia (at a guess, it’s placed somewhere in South America) the story is filled with peacocks, mangos, motorcars, jazz, colour and silk pyjamas.
Angela Barrett provides the artwork, and her delicate and whimsical touch suits the material beautifully – this is certainly not the first fairy tale she’s contributed to. If I have one complaint it’s that there are very few full-page illustrations – most of her pictures are very small headers or footers, and there are many imaginative scenes that don’t get a corresponding illustration.
It’s very much a chapter book rather than a picture book (so don’t think you can read it to your child in one sitting), but is told in a light, friendly prose that addresses the reader directly on several occasions (the identity of the storyteller comes as another sweet surprise).
It’s a beautifully presented book, and would make a fantastic gift. After this, I don’t think I could ever go back to the original fairy tale – though if you’re after another feminist retelling, but sure to check out Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls of the Kingfisher Club.