I did not want to like The Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. I am tired of princesses and equally tired of princess backlash. I am weary from trying to excavate and explain the potential of a princess in a plot (see my review of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett) and I am wary of mash-ups that have the air of a Disney enterprise. However, I adore the illustrations of Pham and, even more, I am always on the look out for what I call a Bridge Chapter Book - a growing niche of chapter books that are a step up from leveled readers (in content and appearnce) but not as difficult as Magic Tree House of Junie B Jones. And, my proclivities and prejudices aside, The Princess in Black is just plain great!
Princess Magnolia is the titular character of The Princess in Black and she is leading the secret double life of a super hero. When we first meet Magnolia, she is entertaining the snooty and snoopy Duchess Wigtower. The Hales do a fine job naming the characters in this book, not going too far over the top and sticking to compound words that emerging readers shouldn't have too much trouble decoding. My favorite name and character is Frimplepants, Magnolia's "unicorn," who also leads a double life. When Princess Magnolia's glitter-stone ring rings, she and Frimplepants spring into action and a clothing change. For Magnolia, this means black garb, but for Frimplepants, horn, sparkly mane and tail and golden horseshoes (one of which also includes the ringing glitter-stone) must be shed before she becomes the sleek, black beauty that he truly is.
And what evil lurks in Princess Magnolia's kingdom? Monsters! Pham's illustrations perfectly bring to life the characters in The Princess in Black, human or otherwise, monsters especially so. Monster Land, which exists underneath the kingdom. There happens to be a hole in Monster Land that allows the (delicious to monsters) smell of plump goats to waft downward, causing serious drool and occasional attempts at goat swiping. Duff, a goat boy (he was not "part goat and part boy. That would have been interesting.") appreciates the help of the Princess in Black and enjoys settling back to watch her ninja skills (and notice the similarities she shares with Princess Magnolia) as she fights them off. All of this is done, in text and illustrations, with gentle, almost cuddly humor.
Magnolia manages to hog-tie the monster, while Duff nibbles popcorn and waits for the part when he cheers, while Duchess Wigtower searches the castle for secrets. And Duff gets and idea - and idea that leads to the birth of Goat Avenger, costume and all, a potential sidekick for the Princess in Black in what I desperately hope will be the sequel to this first book!
Source: Review Copy