The Castle Corona by Sharon Creech, illuminated by David Diaz, 320 pp RL 4

The Castle Corona is now in paperback and I would like to call this wonderful book to your attention - again! My apologies to those of you who have already read this review, and to those of you who haven't, I hope it inspires you to seek out this beautiful, gentle story. And, I am happy to report that the paperback has all of the gorgeous, colorful, illuminated manuscript style artwork of the hardcover.

I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first book by Newbery Award winning author Sharon Creech that I have read. I picked this up thinking that it would be a good candidate for Fairy Tale Fridays, but after reading it I'm not sure if it fits that description since there are no fairy folk, magical creatures or even magic and there is no true evil, villainous character, either. It is more of a parable, a story with a moral lesson. Usually, I shy away from kid's books that claim to teach "life lessons," but this book makes no claim of that sort and its lesson is both subtle and natural, fitting well with the setting and plot of the story. And, having read this in the same week that I read Kate DiCamillo's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, which is a story with a moral lesson that is the opposite of subtle, I find Sharon Creech's story telling skills even more amazing in comparison.

The Castle Corona has to be one of the most beautifully decorated chapter books published in recent years. Speaking about the book, Sharon Creech said that, having lived in Europe for nineteen years, she has long been fascinated by castles. That clearly influenced the medieval setting for the Castle Corona and the appearance of this book. David Diaz's gorgeous illuminated manuscript-like illustrations at the start of each chapter, along with other gold-leaf style decorations give this book a true historical feel. While there are no specific incidents from history in the book, the story clearly takes place during a time that is feudal, with kings in their castles and peasants in the village. Creech also imbues an Italian feel, with most of the characters having Italian names like Guido, Gianni, Vito and Fabrizia. While the village, castle and countryside are described vividly, this is very much a character driven story and there is a large cast of characters to meet. As Creech describes on the first page before chapter one begins, (followed by a beautifully illuminated page that reads, "Long ago and far away...") in the castle there is a king who longs for a nap, a queen who longs for solitude, a prince who loves poetry, a princess who loves herself, a spare prince who loves his sword and a hermit who is wise. In the village, there is a peasant girl who dreams of flying, her brother who dreams of horses, a master who dreams of turnips and an old woman who keeps secrets.

The secret, or not so secret desires and shortcomings of the royals are explored as they interact with each other, a pompous visiting Count and Countess, the hermit and, eventually the villagers. They learn about themselves and the importance of their choices and actions through the stories that the wordsmith tells them evenings after meals. When the king learns that a thief has been spotted in his kingdom he begins an immediate inventory to determine what has been stolen. This sets off a chain of events that brings two peasant children, Pia and Enzio, to the Castle Corona. Pia and Enzio are the servants of Pangini, a vegetable seller who overworks and underfeeds them. Sister and brother, they have almost no memories of their parents and life before Pangini, but they have a game they play where they imagine the lives that they wish they were living. When they find a pouch in the woods one day, a chain of events that changes their lives forever begins to unwind as well.

This story flows and rolls along like the sunflower covered hills of Tuscany in summer. The reader comes to feel sympathy for Pia and Enzio as well as the Queen, and there is never any real sense of danger that occurs. Although Pangini is just selfish and stingy enough to make the reader sympathize with the plight of the siblings, there are no horrible, cruel adults as in other fairy tales and children's books that give a sense of urgency to the story. The King is a bit simpleminded and the Queen is patient and well intentioned. The spare prince, Vito, can be a bit aggressive and menacing at times, but it comes to nothing. Princess Fabrizia, the spoiled brat, eventually tires of herself and seeks to change her ways. And, Prince Gianni takes tentative steps toward writing his own poetry. Pia and Enzio improve their situations as well, although I will not reveal what and how...

The Castle Corona is a refreshing change of pace from the usual fantasies with magic, witches and wizards and novels set in the present with sassy kids and harried parents. The chapters are short and great for bedtime reading. However, as an avid reader of the above described books, I found myself wondering where the climax of the story went. When the mystery of Pia and Enzio's parentage, as well as the explanation for the contents of the pouch occurs, it comes in the form of a story told by the wordsmith. It is roundabout, but at the same time reinforces the themes of imagination and self-discovery through story-telling. And this, I think, is the real subtle gift and genius that Sharon Creech achieves with this book.

If your reader likes this book, try any of Gail Carson Levine's Princess books, including Ella Enchanted. The Royal Realms will seem somewhat familiar. As will the setting of Cornelia Funke's Inkworld Trilogy. However, the scenario is a much darker one, with more medieval type battles and suffering...

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