In my younger years, like most little girls I grew up with fairy tales. I remember beautiful Disney girls dressed up to the nines from Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Ariel and Jasmine. However, as I grew older I came to enjoy watching a particular TV series, Sherry Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater and it was in that show that I came to discover the story of the Princess and the Pea. I remember the stormy night, the dark old castle hallway, and my curiosity if princesses could truly feel a pea hidden beneath the layers of the mattress.
The Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen, penned the original fairy tale of Princess and the Pea. It tells the story of a prince who wants to marry a princess, but is having difficulty finding a suitable wife. For some reason, no one seems to suit his taste and he could not ascertain if they are real princesses. However, one story night a young woman drenched with rain seeks shelter in the prince’s castle. She claims to be a princess, so the prince’s mother decides to test their unexpected guest by placing a pea in the bed she is offered for the night covered by 20 mattresses and 20 featherbeds. In the morning, the guest tells her hosts that she endured a sleepless; kept awake by something hard in the bed; which is certain has bruised her. The prince rejoices. Only a real princess would have the sensitivity to feel a pea through such a quantity of bedding. The two are married, and the pea is placed in the Royal Museum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_princess_and_the_pea).
Mini Grey’s version of the fairy tales is told in the perspective of the pea. Unlike Myra’s earlier review of another fractured version of the tale, The Pea and the Princess preserves most of the fairy tale’s original plot. The difference first and foremost lies on the narrative perspective. Like most fairy tales, the original is narrated using a third person point of view (POV), while Grey’s version tells the story in the first person. The twist in Grey’s version lies in the perspective. We start the tale not with Once Upon a Time there was a prince, but with: Many years ago, I was born in the Palace Allotment, among rows of carrots and beetroot and cabbage. This sets the tone for a vegetable inspired rendition of both the story and artwork. Unlike the original fairytale, the Pea and the Princess tells us the story of how the pea came to be hidden beneath the mattress. Hence, what was the fairytale becomes background information.
At this point in my story, I’m going to have to give you some background information….A year earlier, before I even grew on my pea-plan the Queen had been nagging her son. “You are nearly Thirty-Four Years old, Prince! She said. “It really is high time you married.”
The pea narrates the fairytale quite faithful to Andersen’s story from the prince’s search, frustration, and the stormy night. The new addition, if we must call it that is an answer to my question as a child: Can one really feel a pea hidden beneath 20 mattresses and 20 featherbeds?
The pea in our story isn’t a passive character. Its participation in the story is crucial in finding the prince his bride. However, if I told you the details, it would be too much of a spoiler. So, I leave that part for the reader to discover.
Grey’s narrative is simple. The language used is quite modern with turn of phrases like: “If you are not married within one year, I shall stop your pocket money,” “Like a log, thank you Ma’am,” and “A small wet person stood on the doormat.”
The story also makes some subtle commentaries on such things as politeness. The pea narrates that in truth when asked if one had a comfortable sleep, it is only polite to say that one’s sleep is comfortable. After all, aren’t princesses taught to be polite and aren’t complaining of one’s accommodation as a guest impolite? So indeed, outside fairy tale land, finding a princess to complain about a pea under a mattress might not be the proper way to go.
And to the more perceptive eye, one will notice that the so called princess who came by the palace door that stormy night isn’t a real princess. She might have found that something large and round and uncomfortable was bothering her all night as she slept, but she wasn’t at all any princess. Well, not according to the illustrations. Mini Grey’s narrative isn’t limited to the words. One must look at the illustrations to discover the truth about our “princess.”
Speaking of illustration, Grey’s art is whimsical and thematic. Running with the pea perspective, we find the vegetable theme consistently kept throughout the pages. I love how the wallpaper, the curtains, the jewelry and even the royalty’s eyes are filled with vegetables. The illustrations pop and the details rendered in watercolor add a different dimension to the reading experience. My favorite of the illustrations are that of the different princesses (as seen below), if you look closely one can guess the various fairy tales Grey alludes to.
Another favorite is that of the mattresses stacked one after the another looks like a giant veggie sandwich which to my geek’s mind is funny.
The Pea and the Princess is a modernized, first person narrative that offers its young readers a visual feast. I suggest that parents, guardians and teachers share this story to their kids after reading the original story. A nice compare and contrast discussion, as well as a commentary on the illustrations would be a wonderful learning experience in history, in storytelling and in real princesses.
Mini Grey’s unusual name comes from the fact she was born inside a Mini Car in a icy-park in South Wales. As a kid she loved to create things out of cardboard boxes and whatnot and considered taking Fine Arts, only to pursue a degree in English in the University College London. She currently lives in Oxford. Her book the Pea and the Princess was shortlisted for the Kate Greenway medal. For more information on Mini Grey check out Random House.