The Ugly Princess and the Wise Fool
by Margaret Gray
Illustrated by Randy Cecil
Scholastic, 2003
ISBN: 0-439-57810-8

This is a children's chapter book, geared towards children 9-12. While it is a chapter book, it is both short (167 pages) and illustrated, which may cause it to appeal to younger children than it is really written for. It is technically a fantasy story, being a silly rendition of the traditional fairy tale world.

The recycling, remixing, and often the mocking of fairy tales has long been a tradition in children's literature, from the original Shrek! to The Stinky Cheese Man to Dealing With Dragons. The Ugly Princess fits well into the sub-genre, thoroughly mocking a world filled with beautiful princesses and fairy godmothers in a milquetoast manner, and still providing an interesting story.

Once upon a time, a princess was born who was not beautiful. The entire kingdom was in shock over it, and no one really knew what to do. Worse, this was the third daughter, so she was really supposed the be the most beautiful. But by her thirteenth birthday it was clear that she was not going to miraculously catch up to her two older sisters, who were quite respectable in the beauty department. Not that princess Rose was particularly concerned; she spent her days riding and learning un-princessy subjects, which no one bothered to stop her from doing, 'cus, really, what was the point?

Meanwhile, a young wise man, put out of business by the king's unwise decision to ban all wise men (some of them weren't so much wise as obnoxious), has decided to take up a job as near to the throne as he can... which turns out to be the court jester. He slowly tries to educate the king in the worthiness of wisdom, but mostly he just stands on his head in a humorous fashion for hours each day (the king is a man of simple tastes).

Well, eventually a handsome prince comes by, and leaves quite shortly thereafter. While Rose never really thought much about this sort of thing in the past, suddenly she does rather wish that she was more like other princesses, and she, as it happens, does have the standard-issue fairy godmother -- she just hasn't had occasion to make use of her until now.

As you might expect, adventures ensue, although they are adventures of self-discovery rather than the dragons and wizardry type. Eventually things get all sorted out, and they live happily ever after -- more or less. This is a nice enough story, funny and silly but interesting enough that it's more than just a fun read. Valuable Lessons are learnt about being yourself, speaking up, and not worrying too much about all those other princesses and their obsession with beauty. It's a nice enough romance, although it is indeed written for pre-teens and is quite safely in the G rating category. I think that the writing style and story are quite likely to be enjoyed by older kids too, as long as they aren't worried by the uncoolness factor of reading such a small (and illustrated) book.

I am not a big fan of the illustrations, which are not Randy Cecil's best work. They are rather cartoonish caricatures, without much personality, although they do improve throughout the story (the subject matter limits him a bit). I was reminded strongly of Tomie dePaola's work, which is generally a good thing. But this is certainly a book for reading, not viewing, so the quality of the artwork isn't too important.

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