There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about . . . well, the news. Specifically fake news. Articles and stories that look real when you find them in your in-box or Facebook feed or Twitter account, but that ultimately don’t stand up to scrutiny. According to a December 2016 Pew Research Center Report, 23% of Americans say they’ve shared fabricated reports. The solution? It’s multi-pronged, to say the least, but while digital literacy is a key component, so is the ability to read critically. That doesn’t just mean online news but also newspapers, magazines, and, yes indeed, books. When I worked as a children’s librarian I would find that teachers would often discourage their students from trusting online information, even if it came through reliable databases, in favor of print resources. Books trump the internet, and while there is good reason for this, I think everyone would agree that there are plenty of books out there chock full of faux facts. Children in the 21st century have to be taught to use their brains when they read. High school curriculum spend a fair amount of time drilling this idea home, but considering how young kids are when they search for information online these days, wouldn’t it behoove them to be taught to think things through from the start? Enter Prince Ribbit, a book that drills home a very simple message: “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true.” Its timing could not be better.
It’s a regular sunny day at the castle. Princesses Arabella and Lucinda are mooning over the story of “The Frog Prince” while their younger bespectacled sister Martha searches for an amphibian in the pond’s reeds. Little does she suspect that the frog has overheard her sisters and has hatched a sneaky little plan. Upon revealing himself he declares that he is a cursed prince and only the kindness of the princesses will aid him in his transformation back to human form. Arabella and Lucinda fall for this, hook, line and sinker, while Martha questions the frog’s intent. Yet when she mentions that her scientific texts contradict their fairy tales, her sisters huff back that you shouldn’t believe everything you read. That would be Martha’s point as well, and so she comes to the rather surprising conclusion that the only way to defeat the frog is to understand what she’s dealing with. She plunges headlong into the world of fiction (hitherto unknown to her) and discovers it to be rich with wonder and fun. It also gives her the knowledge she needs to outwit the little frog. Then, ultimately, befriend him.
The hero as skeptic is an interesting trope in picture books. To be perfectly honest, they usually don’t fare all that well. Picture books often attempt to instill a sense of wonder and whimsy in their cynical protagonists. Characters like Marshall in Catch That Cookie by Hallie Durand, for example, may question a fantastical situation, but ultimately they’ll succumb to it. Princess Martha is interesting because while she’s increasingly skeptical, she’s also fun-loving and interesting as a person. The first time we see her she’s scrambling in the weeds on a nature discovery. We sympathize with her from the start since we’ve been given the 411 on the frog’s sneaky plan and we find it frustrating that while Martha is right, no one is listening to her. No one, that is, until she uses the power of story against her froggy antagonist.
One could argue that the book fails to distinguish between works of fiction or non-fiction, painting everything equally with that “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true” brush. And while I’d agree on principal, notice that all the characters in this book say it in turn. Only Martha is canny enough to realize that if she’s going to get to the bottom of the frog’s situation, she needs to be as well informed as possible. Her sisters find their preconceptions confirmed by the frog’s story and don’t feel any need to question what they’ve read. Martha, in contrast, realizes that you need to read both sides of any story to determine the wisest course of action. In doing so she expands her mind, finds a solution to her problem, and comes out the heroine that you’re truly rooting for at the end.
The art of Argentinean illustrator Poly Bernatene is entirely digital but takes care to give the images a great deal of texture. There is none of that unnerving silky smoothness all too common in digital illustration picture book art. Here Princess Martha’s hair has all the wild frizz and curls her sisters lack. She’s pictured with glasses, a kind of visual shortcut used to tell readers that she’s smart (or, at the very least, well-read). The art in and of itself is cartoonish, but Bernatene plays with that by having Martha consult books with very scientifically accurate depictions of frogs, which contrast wildly with the green-skinned hedonist she’s forced to confront. The book isn’t chock full of hidden details, but there were little elements that I appreciated. The dog that pops up periodically to cause trouble. The fact that the servants repeat in several scenes, suggesting that the staff is not as large as one might think. And I liked that for all that the story appears to be set in a “Once upon a time” era, once the girls step out into the town it looks distinctly 1930s, all fedoras and flash-bulb cameras.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time that Emmett and Bernatene have tackled the idea of not believing everything you read in a fairytale context. The Princess and the Pig was one of my favorite picture books of 2011 and had many of the same beats as Prince Ribbit. Like this book it featured royalty refusing to face the obvious facts before them in favor of fairy tale wisdom (to often disastrous results). Both books are about willful ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They’re about people confirming their own prejudices and what that means for those around them. But the lesson of Prince Ribbit feels more pointed than The Princess and the Pig did. The ultimate lesson may be the same, but Prince Ribbit hammers its point home with the repeated sentence, “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true” in all its connotations.
Teaching very young children to take their books’ facts on something other than mere faith is a tricky subject, but increasingly necessary. With a steady hand and a working brain, a parent, teacher, or librarian could easily spin this book into a lesson that would ultimately do child readers a world of good. Read carefully. Read critically. Read everything and then form your own opinion from the facts, as best as you can gather them. Or, if you just prefer, read this cute book because it has princesses and talking frogs in it. As far as I can tell, that’s a win-win situation.
On shelves March 1st.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Catch That Cookie by Hallie Durand, ill. David Small
- The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett, ill. Poly Bernatene
- The Frog Prince, Continued by Jon Scieszka, ill. Steve Johnson
- Kirkus (which appears to have completely missed the point on this one)
- Publisher Weekly (slightly better)
Mr. Emmett gets extra points for the sly Blackadder reference in this video. See if you hear it.