So far, my series on The Twelve Dancing Princesses has focused on novel-length retellings. I love novel retellings, but I also love picture-book versions of fairy tales. Picture books have a few important differences from novel-length retellings. There is the opportunity for lots of beautiful artwork, for one. A novel has to flesh out the characters to work while fairy tales in their short and historical form are meant to have fairly blank characters onto whom listeners can more easily project themselves or their neighbors. A picture book can choose whether to leave the characters blank or draw them more fully. Finally, an issue that I noticed especially with this particular story: A novel has to address just why it is that twelve royal girls of adult age are dancing their kingdom into poverty. Are they dance-mad or under some sort of spell? The shorter versions go by so quickly that it’s enough to solve the mystery of where the princesses go without needing to know why. Those interested can read the original Grimm’s version from Project Gutenberg.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses retold and illustrated by Jane Ray. Jane Ray is one of my absolutely favorite illustrators. I have yet to see a book of hers that I didn’t love the illustrations for, and this is no exception. Her two-dimensional folk art style is filled with rich colors, arching branches, and bright spots of gold. Based on the variety of hair and skin colors and body shapes, her princesses had a variety of mothers, though she doesn’t get into that. All the princesses are drawn as beautiful, including the two with glasses and the one with a double chin and non-traditional-princess figure. Where most books just don’t show the hero when he’s in the invisibility cloak, Ray’s is there, cleverly shown in shadowy folds that are a puzzle to find. The retelling is fairly straightforward, leaving characterization to the illustrations. It leaves out the bloody bits of the original, and visually explains the youngest, who guesses that they are being followed, not being the one to marry the old soldier by her looking too young to be married. The only addition to the original story is, at the very end, having the new queen hire a royal cobbler and increasing the opportunities for dance throughout the kingdom (yay, dancing!) This is a perfect version for those who like their art beautiful and their retellings traditional.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses retold by John Cech. Illustrated by Lucy Corvino. Cech’s retelling adds some nice characterization and a more animated tone to the storytelling. Here, rather than being beheaded, earlier princes are eventually found in the mystical kingdom, from which they eventually escape to marry the other princesses. As in Jane Ray’s version, if any reason for the dancing is to be found, it is that the princesses love dancing, and so the eldest princess makes continued dancing a condition of her marrying the soldier. Lucy Corvino’s illustrations are beautiful, lively swirls of color, very different from either of the other two picture book versions here. While I like the style in general, the historical purist in me could not get over her combining fifteenth-century hairstyles with nineteenth-century dresses. I know it’s fantasy, and it shouldn’t matter… but somehow it does. It is still really beautiful.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses Retold and illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. This version is the one that I bought for myself with my own money when I was in high school. It’s still in print, and, while not the first version in the list of picture book adaptations on Amazon, is the first one with a creator name that suggests itself in the search box – not at all bad for a retelling over 20 years old. Sanderson, like Ray, both retells and illustrates the story. The pictures are the lush, detailed oils that you expect of a quality fairy-tale retelling. It’s clearly set in the 15th century – a note even says that she research 15th century dance to try to get the dance pictures right, though not all the poses look right to me. I can tell by the hairstyles that this was done in the late 1980s, alas, though I am sure that this would not even be noticed by a child reading this, or even necessarily by a person less familiar than with the Middle Ages than my fellow medieval buffs and I. Her princesses are a little older and her hero is just a youth looking for a job rather than a retired solider. That makes the youngest and the hero the right age to be interested in each other. She names them Lina and Michael and lets them develop a romance over the course of the story. The princes who tried previously are given a potion to freeze their hearts and leave nothing but the love of dancing. She makes a few other twists to the story, like the princesses giving Michael an official invitation to the secret ball to try to trap him. A beautiful version, with the storytelling updated to slightly more modern ideas of relationships. In the end, I think, the princesses let Michael share their secret because of the relationship they’ve developed with him rather than just being busted.