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.”
This is a Royal Diaries book I’m reading for the very first time while reviewing, and I’m not sure how I missed it on its first publication.
Sondok, Princess of the Moon and Stars: Korea, A.D. 595, Sheri Holman, 2002.
To start with, I have to freely admit that my knowledge of Korean history is sadly, embarrassingly lacking. I had to do a quick Wikipedia visit to familiarize myself with the actual historical Sondok (also transliterated Seondeok), a reigning queen of Silla, which was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Silla lasted for 992 years, and I would venture a guess that the amount of time spent on it in an average history class is about zero minutes. I have two degrees in history and I had not heard of Silla before reading this book.
Now that we’ve talked about how my lack of knowledge probably contributed to why I didn’t read this book in the first place, let’s get started.
Sondok doesn’t keep a journal, per se, but writes on parchment that goes into the Ancestor Jar of her recently-deceased grandmother. She already knows at this point, as a teenager, that her father intends to make her his heir since he has no male sons, and is desperate to make herself worthy of his decision. She loves stargazing and astronomy, but this is considered a male science in Silla, and not something she should concern herself with—which is upsetting to her, understandably so.
One day I will stop doing books from the Dear America series and spinoffs, but it is not this day. It is probably not until next week.
Book: Kaiulani: The People’s Princess, Hawaii, 1889. Ellen Emerson White, 2001.
This is one of those books I never read as a kid, so I read it for the very first time in my twenties, and I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed it as a kid because it’s damn depressing as hell. It’s very well-written, Ellen Emerson White is doing her thing with snappy characters and sharp dialogue, but the subject matter is just so intrinsically depressing! Okay, let’s go.
This is (unsurprisingly) about Kaiulani, the last royal Hawaiian princess, and opens in 1889 in Waikiki, Oahu, before it became the most sought-after honeymoon destination on the planet. Kaiulani’s mother died two years previously and now that she is a teenager, her father is sending her to England for schooling, since she is destined to be queen one day. Kaiulani is half Hawaiian and half Scottish, as her father is from Scotland, and I’m reasonably certain that this is the only Royal Diaries/Dear America/etc book about a mixed-race character.
One of my favourite things about the Royal Diaries series is their willingness to focus on non-white characters. Nine of the twenty books are about non-white non-European royals (ten if you count Cleopatra, whose lineage is unclear, and could probably be counted in either column), which is a really terrific percentage for a young-adult series focusing on princesses, and includes a Mayan queen. That is awesome and I fully want to support any series that improves the visibility of non-white people in YA fiction.