My series on the Twelve Dancing Princesses continues with this one, the one that started it all for my good friend Dr. M., when her toddler pulled it off the shelf at the library.
The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler. Once upon a time, a king fell in love. He built a palace of pink stone for his queen over the bright brook where they had their first meeting, and prepared for a happy ending and heirs to the throne. But his wife bore daughter after daughter, all unable to inherit the kingdom. The clear stream stagnated into a lake and the sparkling castle grew dank and moldy. When the queen died bearing a thirteenth daughter, the king was outraged and refused to allow her in the royal nursery. Little Zita was raised as a servant in the kitchen, only gradually getting to know her own history and, later, her sisters, all of whose names start with the letter A. She makes friends with Breckin, a stable boy, and starts having secret weekly sleepovers in her sisters’ chamber. Though she revels in her sisters’ love, Zita desperately longs for acceptance by her father as well, and this is not forthcoming. He is angry enough that his daughters do not speak to any of the princes that come as suitors, even when all eligible princes have returned home offended. Secretly, they tell Zita that they are unable to speak, and are heartbroken to think that they may never be married. The oldest, Aurelia, has a long-distance flirtation with a soldier on horseback who turns out to be Breckin’s older brother from the military, Milek, but this seems doomed. The king banished magic and magic-makers from the kingdom years earlier, so when, three-quarters of the way through the book, the princesses suddenly begin to fall asleep and sicken even as their dancing shoes are wearing out, the king will not hear that it might be a curse. Zita and Breckin, exploring in the woods together, find the hidden cottage of a friendly old witch, Babette, who was friends with the queen before magic was banished. Together, they come up with a plan to try to solve the mystery and save the princesses before it is too late.
This is a retelling focused on the people and the family relationships. While there are offended princes from other kingdoms, this little kingdom’s existence isn’t being threatened. Instead, Zita and her friends battle to save her beloved sisters, even though the only reason she isn’t under the curse is that she isn’t quite considered a real princess. And though Zita has been rejected by her father, she’s still allowed to live in the palace and is known to be his daughter, so that the book never ventures into the dicey-for-children area of disputed paternity. At the risk of a slight spoiler, the problem in the end turns out to be a curse placed by an evil magic user (I know you’re all shocked), but one who would never have gotten so far if the king hadn’t successfully kept nearly all the good magic users out of the kingdom. The reveal of this person happens at the end, while our relationship is with the kind and gentle Babette, who encourages Zita to push and trust herself and her friends. This makes the book an excellent counter to the “witches are always evil” theme found in so many fairy tales. While there is a little romance, the love that Zita herself experiences is mostly friendship and love of family, and there is nothing inappropriate for children. This is a solidly enjoyable retelling for middle graders on up. (Note the alternate cover that Google Images found – where is it from? Is one better? Do the different covers change the way you think about the book?)