Fine. I’ll review this, but I won’t like it, and I’ll complain about it the entire time, because apparently What A Waste Of Potential is my biggest problem. Too bad I am not a teacher and can’t torture children by going on at length about their wasted potential, like I can with this book!
Elisabeth: The Princess Bride, Austria-Hungary, 1853, Barry Denenberg, 2003.
First of all, the illustration on this cover is awful. Elisabeth, or Sisi, really was a famously beautiful woman, and the existing photographs of her show this! Why is the painting of her on the cover making her look like a disgruntled schoolteacher who resembles her own horse? Especially since practically this entire book and almost all of Sisi’s social capital rested on how beautiful she was! Seriously!
Second of all: This book is impossibly short! It clocks in at just ninety pages of story! You can’t tell me that Laurence Yep got approval to write an incredibly long story about Lady Xian, but Barry Denenberg got only ninety pages to blow through a story about a misunderstood monarch who is a bang-on perfect subject for a YA novel about royals? She literally has everything: incredibly difficult expectations placed on her without the framework to deal with them, a whirlwind mistake romance, anorexia and stress disorders, and the unreasonable expectations of beauty and femininity! This is tailor-made for a really good YA novel and THIS is not it. I should write it, I’d do a better job.
We open the book in July at Possenhofen, Sisi’s childhood home, where her older sister Helene is being summoned to Vienna by their aunt Sophie–the Archduchess of Austria and mother of Franz Joseph, the Austrian emperor. Now, Helene has long been picked out at Franz Joseph’s eventual bride, and their mother is dead-set on this, and her father doesn’t give a crap. I get a very strong Mr. Bennet vibe off of Sisi’s father–he doesn’t seem to care too much about his children’s futures, and is more concerned with dicking around at home. But as usual, we are expected to think that Sisi’s mother is awful and controlling for wanting to arrange her daughters well, and Sisi’s father is wonderful because he’s so indulgent. I already hate this book.
What an odd choice for a YA novel. And…interestingly executed, we’ll go with that.
Catherine: The Great Journey, Russia 1743, Kristiana Gregory, 2005.
This is the last installment in the Royal Diaries series (before the halfhearted relaunch), and it’s…different. It’s much shorter than most of the other books, and it’s such an odd choice since Catherine the Great is associated so strongly with licentiousness and autocratic Russian rule. (Even more so than Anastasia, I’d argue, since that story has acquired a lot of romantic cultural twists.) Even though it’s not true that Catherine the Great died in flagrante with a horse, she certainly did have a bunch of lovers and more or less did as she pleased after the death of her husband. And before his death. And while possibly being involved in his death. While I wouldn’t say that her story is inappropriate for younger teens, I would say that her story is infinitely better suited to an adult audience where you can take advantage of all the ready-made drama. Much like the Tudor court.
But since this is a novel about her youth, that doesn’t come into play so much, and what we’re left with instead is a bit on the meek side. A little short, and while it has a lot of interesting points, it feels a little wanting. And similarly there’s very little indication of the very strong personality Catherine had—she was an immensely powerful and intelligent ruler, but the Catherine in this book come off as a bit on the weak side. Part of that is due to her position, but because the epilogue is so short and wimpy it loses a lot of its potential.
Full disclosure: I know absolutely nothing about Caribbean history in general and Haitian history specifically, but wow. How outstanding was this book???
Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490, Edwige Danticat, 2005.
This is such an interesting novel in a period that is almost never ever ever a focus for any type of fiction in English: pre-Columbian-contact in the non-North American Western Hemisphere. Seriously. Name one other work of fiction for any age range that deals with any part of Central or South America pre-Columbian contact. Totally pre-contact, not “the white people show up at the end.” (Apocalypto doesn’t count.) Why so ignored? It’s so fascinating, and Danticat does such an excellent job of descriptions that it comes alive even for people like me who are (sadly, pathetically) pretty uninformed about Haitian history or indeed Caribbean history in general.
This is one of those interesting books in the series where the diary style is used with a culture that didn’t have a history of written language, so we need to handwave a little bit of that, but once you get past the initial dating system (season, phase of the moon, day, e.g. “The sunny season, first quarter moon, day 1”) it isn’t a distraction any more. Honestly, I think it works really well even discussing cultures that didn’t write, because by allowing the narrative to flow in this way is such a great way of delving into the narrator’s thoughts rather than a recounting of events. Anacaona is sixteen at the outset of the book and about eighteen by the end of it (if I’m counting correctly), and is married with a child by the end as well, so it’s definitely a bit more on the more mature end of things than, say, the Elizabeth I novel. But I would venture a guess to say it’s actually better, and I enjoyed it more afterwards.
Now that I’m looking back on my copy of this book, which I got in 1999 when it came out and I was precisely in the target range for these books: this cover illustration seems a little inappropriately seductive for 11-year-olds.
Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, Egypt, 57 BC., Kristiana Gregory, 1999.
A couple of things—I would have thought that Cleopatra would not be at the top of the list for a series about female rulers, given her sexualized legacy, but this is a series that also did Catherine the Great, so whatever. Given that, one of the places where the diary-style novel tends to fall down a little bit is when you’re depicting a culture where a diary is a little hard to swallow. So the premise here is that Cleopatra, at twelve, is writing on papyrus scrolls to record her days. I can live with that in the interest of writing a book set in 57 B.C.
Also, I know almost nothing about ancient Egypt (does this even qualify as ancient? See how little I know about this time period?) besides what you can glean from Wikipedia, so I have no idea whether any of this is accurate at all.
The Royal Diaries series was launched a bit after the regular Dear America books, and while they started out with some of the most famous royal women in history, they did branch out quite a bit until about half focused on non-European women of colour. Which is a really terrific ratio for a YA book series, and I’m not about to trash them for that. But this one I happen to have out from the library.
Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, Austria-France, 1769, Kathryn Lasky, 1998.
I think everyone knows the basics of the Marie Antoinette story—an Austrian princess who married the heir to the French throne, spent money lavishly and found herself at the focal point of court intrigue and revolutionary anti-monarchy sentiment, and was beheaded in 1793.
Let’s get something straight right off the bat here: I hated this book, more than any other Royal Diaries book that’s out there. I hated it when I read it as a teenager and I hated it now.
Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess, Russia, 1914, Carolyn Meyer, 2004.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that it’s bad, exactly. Not in the sense that it’s a poorly-written pile of dreck or anything. It’s perfectly competently written, it just completely fails at walking the line between innocently naïve and foreshadowing, and tone-deafness. However, part of the reason that I disliked it so strongly was because I listened to the audiobook version of this, read by Rene Raudman. Now, she is a great audiobook reader, and I don’t know if it was intentional, but she manages to imbue Anastasia with a sort of slightly whiny, over-privileged tone that really just creates this sense of snottiness that feels indicative of nobility.
And what’s more, this is a terrible cover. Poor Anastasia looks like a melted doll. This was reissued a couple of years ago but that cover is even worse, so I’m choosing to pretend it never happened.
Now, I think this was an interesting choice, since the only other Royal Diaries book that is poised right on the brink of revolution is Marie Antoinette, but that one feels to me to be slightly less tone-deaf. In this one, though, Anastasia is so focused on how awesome her dad is and how nobody could possibly think that anything other than absolute imperial rule would ever, ever work, that it ends up flying right past “interesting foreshadowing” and heading into “hit you over the head with it” territory. The thing is, the one thing absolutely everybody knows about Anastasia is that she was part of the last imperial family of Russia and grew up in magnificent splendour, and that she was executed with her family following the revolution of 1917, and that she was rumoured to have escaped. But while Marie Antoinette’s book is handled with some grace and real understanding, this novel just comes across as….head-turningly naïve. I understand it as a stylistic choice, but I think it’s a slightly strange one and I don’t know how well it comes through.
You can draw a direct line between this book and every girl who burned through the collected works of Philippa Gregory like they were written in cocaine.
Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor, England, 1544, Kathryn Lasky, 1999.
This is the first and most famous of the entire series, and if the library copy I have in my hands is any indicator, it’s VERY well-loved. It’s so hard to write a Tudor story that isn’t incredibly overdone or overly reliant on the sex-and-intrigue conventions of the genre (hey, Philippa Gregory!), but focusing on a YA aspect gives it a really interestingly fresh perspective. Lasky doesn’t shy away from the worse aspects of the court (as mentioned, the sex/intrigue/nonstop plotting), but she downplays it enough to make it palatable for an audience of 11-year-olds who are probably getting their first introduction to a non-school discussion of Elizabeth I.
Lasky does a nice job of creating an Elizabeth who is intelligent and sensible without being precocious or overly-crafty. At eleven, she spends a lot of time worrying about whether her father loves her (a pretty understandable problem when your father is famous for killing people who irritate him), given that he keeps exiling her and then bringing her back to court over and over again. She bounces back between wondering if her father is totally in his right mind (a treasonous thought!) and loving him very much indeed. She spends most of her time with Kat, her governess, and on-and-off with the other royal “children” (in quotes because Princess Mary is twenty-eight, but still classified as a child) and their tutors. At the outset, Elizabeth is at Greenwich Palace, since one of the king’s frequent desires to forget her has given way to his new queen’s wishes. Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and final wife, is smart and has a tremendous interest in Elizabeth’s studies—unlike her other “mothers.”