The Most Wonderful Thing in the World by Vivian French, illustrated by Angela Barrett

Prolific British picture book author Vivian French teams up with the reigning Queen of the art of the fairy tale, Angela Barrett to create The Most Wonderful Thing in the World, a contemporary story that feels like a classic fairy tale.

The story begins, "Once, in the time of your grandmother's grandmother, there was a kingdom." Looking very much like Venice, Italy, the kingdom sits on a lagoon dotted with islands. The king and the queen are very proud of their kingdom and of their daughter, Lucia. Realizing that she will someday rule the kingdom, they determine that they must start the search for a husband who will reign with her. They send a letter to Wise Old Angelo who lives on the smallest island in the kingdom to ask exactly what they should do. Angelo thinks long and hard and tells the king and queen that they must find the young man who can show them, "the most wonderful thing in the world," and has his grandson, Salvatore, hand deliver this missive.

Lucia has also realized that she will be queen one day and asks permission to explore the city and get to know her future subjects and realm. As Lucia is leaving the castle, the first person she meets is Salvatore! Upon being asked, Salvatore says that nobody knows the city better than he does and he will spend "Today, tomorrow and the next day, until you have seen all that you want," guiding Lucia. Meanwhile, suitors from all over the world are arriving with marvels that include airships, pyramids and mermaids in tanks. The king and queen "grew grey with exhaustion," but nothing seemed to be the most wonderful thing. Meanwhile, Salvatore has fallen in love with Lucia, although, he tells his grandfather, his face "wet with tears," that he can never marry her. Wise Old Angelo tells Salvatore to show the king and the queen the most wonderful thing in the world and then he can.

It may seem wrong to tell the ending of The Most Wonderful Thing in the World, but I think that it's very difficult to pull off a believable, successful ending to a contemporary fairy tale -  which this book does. Together for their final day touring the city, Lucia and Salvatore are on Angelo's island - the only place she has not yet been. Looking for their daughter, the king and queen head to Angelo's island also. Exhausted by their trip, on top of days and days of looking for the most wonderful thing, the royals stop to rest on a bench. Salvatore approaches and asks if he may show them the most wonderful thing in the world. They agree, even though he is so unlike the others. Salvatore presents to them . . . Lucia! 

And, as wonderful as this twist is, I really, really love the ending of The Most Wonderful Thing in the World. Lucia and Salvatore marry with the pomp and ceremony to be expected, "your grandmother's grandmother would remember." As the new king and queen, Lucia and Salvatore walk through their city every day, talking with the people. They are so beloved, that the people of the city build a statue in their honor. In the middle of a fountain, carved out of stone, stand Lucia, Salvatore and their first born child, carved underneath are the words, "The Most Wonderful Thing." The only thing more charming than the ending of this fairy tale are Angela Barrett's Edwardian influenced illustrations that fill every page. A sumptuous story, gorgeously illustrated - The Most Wonderful Thing in the World is a very special book. 

Source: Review Copy

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