A good original fairy tale is a hard creature to conjure. To come up with a story of appropriate length, charm, and originality often requires that its author be ready to do a little research and a little digging in ye olde history files. Megan McDonald is a former children’s librarian and storyteller, though you probably know her better for her Judy Moody stories than anything else. But as a storyteller, she has acquired a fine ear for a tellable tale. Of course the appeal of The Hinky Pink is that it isn’t wholly reliant on the fact that few of us have heard this story of a mischievous little magical critter. No, between McDonald’s brisk and catchy telling and Brian Floca’s evocative settings and funny images, Hinky Pink is what they call in the business a charmer. An all new retelling of a story that is bound to be beloved, always assuming that enough people go out and find it.
Anabel is just a simple seamstress living out her days in her tiny room in Old Italy. She longs to someday make gowns and sew delicate fabrics fit for a princess. Not that she’s ever seen one before, but she’s sure they’re all delicate and lovely. Anabel unexpectedly has her wish granted when the resident princess, one Isabella Caramella Gorgonzola, ruins her best gown with a well-placed raspberry tart. She tells the seamstress that she has only one week to produce the mother of all gowns. One, "the color of a ruby snowbird’s wing. With sequins that glitter like sparkleberries and stitches as lacey as snowflakes." Fair enough. Yet the room in which Anabel is to stay while she creates this marvel is haunted by a sprite called a hinky pink. Every night when she goes to fall asleep the hinky pink pinches her and throws her covers to the four corners of the room. Local nursemaid Mag tells Anabel that the creature will only be appeased if the girl makes it its own little bed. Yet making the perfect bed is by no means easy, and as the night of the ball grows closer Anabel will have to find a way to appease not only a hudgin, as Mag calls it, but a cranky princess as well. McDonald has culled her tale from Margery Bailey’s The Bed Just So in Whistle for Good Fortune and from Jean B. Hardendorff’s retelling.
There are certain expectations a small child has when they are read a fairy tale. These expectations can be lined up neatly in a row as follows:
If there is a poor girl at the beginning . . . . . . . . she will be rich by the end.
If she does not have a husband . . . . . . . . . . . she will have one by the end.
If she meets a princess who is not saintly . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .that princess will be punished by the end.
If she is a seamstress . . . . . . . . . . . . . .she will BE the princess by the end.
See? Simple rules but we’ve seen them followed so meticulously over the years that I was wholly unprepared for McDonald’s own story. There’s a certain distinctly American expectation that if you start a story out as a poor seamstress, even if you enjoy your work you are going to be introduced to greater grander things by the story’s close and you’ll never return to your life of sewing ever again. McDonald’s heroine, however, dreams only of someday getting to produce a dress that is fit for a princess. "A dress that would dance the tarantella." And she gets her wish in the end, though it is almost as if she accomplishes two wishes at once. You see, at the start of the book Anabel dreams of what a real princess would look like. When she sees her first live one the effect is disheartening. However, once Anabel’s dress is placed on the princess, it transforms the woman into someone more princess-like than could have been expected (or hoped for). Anabel sees the essence royalty that has been created by her own hands. Maybe that’s why the last image in the book is of Anabel dancing with Mag outside of the ballroom while the princess is in the out-of-focus background. If this book is about anything, it’s about the triumph of working class people to keep their jobs in spite of awful odds and awfuller employers.
Another oddity associated with this story is the hinky pink itself. Many of us have heard of stories like this where mischievous spirits must be appeased before they’ll grant a wish or a boon. Yet the hinky pink isn’t like that. If you’re expecting it to reward Anabel for figuring out what it wants, you are bound to be let down. The hinky pink grants the girl only what she would have had in the first place; sleep. The crux of the story isn’t how Anabel will use the hinky pink for her own devices, but rather how she’ll outwit this very personal problem that has been haunting her. Heck, if you even wanted to call this story a great big metaphor, I wouldn’t stop you. Seems about right to me.
And all the while McDonald’s writing sets the story’s tone. Little sentences are worked in that you might not spot on a first or second reading, but that become very clear and distinct the more you look at the book. When Anabel is certain that she will fail because she is too tired to work properly Mag bucks her up with a sturdy, "walk with your slippers until you find your shoes." Or, "The barking of dogs does not reach heaven." Of course, we never do discover how it is that Mag knows that Anabel is a magnificent tailor, one to be believed in, even to the very last minute. But this concern is brief and fleeting and though I’ve little doubt that some enterprising young reader will wonder as well, it’s not so much of a flaw as it is a narrative gap.
Sometimes an author will set a book in a very distinctive location, like Spain or England, and the accompanying illustrator will work up a quick and dirty sense of the location. England? Great, just slap some furry hats on guys in red coats and voila! Instant British Isles. Brian Floca is not one of these artists. To call him meticulous is to hint at a kind of anal-retentive nature in this work, but I’m having a hard time describing his pictures in this book in any other way. In her Author’s Note, McDonald says that she has, "restored the tale to its original setting (Firenze, Old Italy)". Under Floca’s hand, that sentence takes on greater weight. From its windowside glances to its multiple aerial views, Floca gets deep into the heard of Firenze. He writes in his Illustrator’s Note that while "The Hinky-Pink is no substitute for a reputable art history survey," many of the buildings seen here are particular to Florence. And as Mr. Floca says, "A problem with Florence is that it looks good from every angle. This makes decisions difficult." One can only speculate as to what was rejected, particularly since the final product seems so self-evident and perfectly done.
The colors of the book are interesting too. Set in a kind of 1800s period, the book is awash in pinks, creams, golds, and light cloud-ridden blues. But the pinks and roses are the most significant here. From the shock of hair lighting up the hinky pink’s head to the princess’s fairytale dress, pink is the name of the game (which may be inspired, in some small part, by the name of the sprite itself). That doesn’t mean that Floca doesn’t stretch his muscles in other areas as well. I loved the dull, almost dirty colors of Anabel’s tiny room where she hems for a living. Or the late afternoon gold that stretches from the Great Castle of Firenze to the bottom of the page. Or, best of all, the explosion of riotous color emanating from the teeny tiny hudgin when at last it finds its own perfect bed.
The speech balloons are an interesting touch for a book containing such classical styles and designs. They are most often exclamations like "Aargh!", "Alas", "At last," and "Holy macaroni". Many of them are Italian in nature, like "Santo cielo!" and "Che bella!" We can’t know whose decision it was to create such little cries either. Maybe McDonald wrote them in intending that they be part of the narrative and Floca plucked them out. Or maybe he wrote them on his own and inserted them into the text. Or maybe they were always meant to be balloons. It’s hard to say. Yet they offer a nice complement to the sheer amount of action Floca packs into this book. I mean, when that hinky pink first pinches Anabel and pulls off her covers, it’s not done gently or lightly but in such a way that she is tossed head over heels backwards, feet in the air. And when she runs about trying to find the hobbledy-gob the panels are broken up with ornate columns, like a comic rife with classical architecture. So between the speech balloons on the one hand and the running, diving, tossing, and turning on the other, this is a pretty lively concoction.
Let’s tick them off on our fingers shall we. You have a fun fairytale of an entirely new nature – tick. You have unexpected twists and turns in what at first appears to be an already familiar plot – tick. You have beautiful architecture and an eye pleasing shades and hues – tick. And on top of all that you have enough action and movement to keep you engaged from start to finish – tick tick tick. The pairing of McDonald and Floca wouldn’t have occurred to me but then I’m not an editor, am I? That’s why they get paid the big bucks, y’know. So if your fairytale sections are running a bit low and you need something wholly new to please your older storytime crew, The Hinky Pink will fit the bill. One-of-a-kind in the best possible way.
Other Blog Reviews: Literate Lives
Other Online Reviews: BookLoons Reviews
Hinky Pink appeared on the Fall 2008 Kid’s Indie Next List under "Inspired Recommendations for Kids from Indie Booksellers." They have good taste, those independent booksellers.
And I cannot recommend highly enough the live webcast of Mr. Floca’s studio. Looks about like you’d expect.