The Duchess of Whimsy: An Absolutely Delicious Fairy Tale
By Randall de Seve
Illustrated by Peter de Seve
Philomel (a division of Penguin)
On shelves October 29, 2009
I don’t think that every single picture book out there needs to have a moral, but it’s not a terrible idea if they happen to contain stories that instruct just a tad on the side. Children’s stories offer every possible morality tale you can imagine too. Don’t steal. Be polite to your baby sister. Don’t eat food you find on the street (unless, apparently, it has fallen from the sky). The thing about The Duchess of Whimsy is that for all its overwhelming beauty and fun, its moral is based in practicality. The gist: fun people and sensible people need one another. Put another way, there is room in this world for glam and glitter and room in this world for sense and sensibility. So behold the picture book that tells small children that as fun as the quirky folks out there can be, everyone needs a little bit of normalcy to keep the world going round. Cause while whimsy’s all well and good, it won’t get you a grilled cheese sandwich in the end.
The Duchess of Whimsy was, to be frank, the life of the party. The Earl of Norm was not. While the Duchess reveled in the spectacular, the Earl was down-to-earth and downright ordinary. The problem with this? He was also positively smitten with the Duchess and keen to impress her in any way. This meant doing things out of his nature, like bringing in hungry giraffes, composing painful odes, and wearing flamboyant, gaudy costumes. The Duchess was, to say the least, not impressed until the day the cook took sick. While all her friends attempted to cook ridiculous complicated recipes, the Earl went for a simple grilled cheese sandwich and a cold glass of milk. Amazed that something so uncomplicated could be so good, the two got to talking and found they had quite a lot to say. From that time on they enjoyed one another’s company, for when it came to personality these two found each other to be “simply extraordinary”.
Author Randall de Seve tried her hand at picture books first with a small unobtrusive little number called Toy Boat, illustrated by Loren Long. It was sweet and it was simple. So The Duchess of Whimsy marks her departure from quiet intimate tales to something a little more raucous, ribald, and robust. I found that I loved the writing in this book. The pacing appears to be perfect and the characters crystal clear. Though she eschews the company of the Earl of Norm right from the start, you don’t ever get the feeling that the Duchess is a bad sort. She just happens to have a lot on her plate and the Earl’s overenthusiasm is, admittedly, a bit grating. And can I give enough thanks that this story wasn’t written in rhyme? It reads beautifully with its own interior cadence and style. You won’t have any problem holding a child’s attention with this text. If there was any excess to it, it was excised in the editing long ago.
Ms. de Seve shares this book with her husband, its illustrator. If Peter de Seve’s art looks familiar to you, it may be because he’s done his fair share of New Yorker magazine covers, with the occasional musical comedy poster on the side. In this, his first picture book, he packs the pages full of colorful, but never gaudy, images and colors. He also makes particular use of his white backgrounds. It’s funny, but when you think back on his images, you may forget that they were presented in this way. Generally, de Seve indulges in ruffles, truffles, furbelows, and feathers. The sheer exhausting enormity of his images (and the million and one tiny details hidden within) would undoubtedly be too much if his backgrounds were anything more that pure unadulterated white. So even if a scene has a background (as when the party guests take over the unfortunate cook’s kitchen), there’s white on the opposite page, allowing for a little spillover from the madness across the way.
As for those aforementioned details, de Seve isn’t afraid to pack his pages full of them. If you watch some of the guests early on you’ll note that their outfits match the foods they try to make later on. The giraffe mentioned as an unfortunate attempt on the Earl’s part to get the Duchess’s attention early on, reappears at the final banquet taking a nibble on her hair’s fancy fashions. Heck, the banquet for that matter is chock full of remarkable insights, like the fact that the knight we’ve seen in the background all this time is actually a girl, the king is a fan of a good curly straw, and the bird on the crest of his crown appears to change its expressions as the situation demands.
I don’t know de Seves personally. Never met them a day of my life. Don’t know where they live or what they look like or any of that. I do know, however, that when illustrators put people that they know into their books, those people have a very distinctive look to them. Marla Frazee did it with her husband in Roller Coaster and darned if I don’t think that the two little fairies in this book don’t look like they might be the de Seves daughters. I know that the Earl’s dog in the book has to be their dog. It’s a little pit bull with a splotch over one eye that can’t be anything but a family dog, but the little fairies who look to be five years apart in age… yeah. Those are their kids. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts on that one. Take a look for yourself and see. It’s glaringly obvious from the title page. Plus what kid wouldn’t want to become a fairy in a book?
The fellow tale I was reminded of directly after finishing this book was King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub. Both are whimsical over-the-top confections of silliness and delight. Both show royalty at its most raucous, placing fancy folk in their fancier wear in positions of extreme silliness and ineptitude. And though their stories differ, the feel of these books is remarkably the same. Both are a ton of fun and kids who love poring over tiny details will have a hard time not gaping and gawking over Whimsy as often as they do Bidgood.
If you find that you’ve a Fancy Nancy follower in your life and you wish in inject into their brain something just as fancy, but a little more . . . I dunno . . . filling, The Duchess of Whimsy is made to order. Kids will find themselves turning back to read and reread the story over and over again (if they can wrench the book from the hands of their parents, trying to do the very same thing). It’s nice to find a good original fairy tale, and this one certainly fits the bill. The ordinary and the extraordinary combine in a book that is certain to be beloved by every ordinary and extraordinary child out there today. Magical.
On shelves October 29, 2009.
- Peter gives a teensy bit of background on the book on his blog A Sketchy Past, the Art of Peter de Seve.