Margaret Gray,
The Ugly Princess & the Wise Fool
(Holt, 2002)

The once popular type of princess -- the sort with guileless blue eyes and more beauty than brains -- has gone quite out of fashion. Princesses in more recent books are, more often than not, antidotes to the earlier stereotype, to the point where the plain, smart and plucky princess has become a new stereotype. I hesitated at picking up Margaret Gray's version of the unusual princess because I had already made my acquaintance with Gail Carson Levin's Ella, Patricia Wrede's Cimorene, Vivian Vande Velde's Princess Jennifer and half a dozen other such atypical princesses.

But The Ugly Princess & the Wise Fool is filled with such good humor and wit that I was caught from the first sentence and didn't put the book -- chest protector, rather -- down until I had finished it. The familiar elements of fairy tales are all there. But Princess Rose has a snub nose and buck teeth and isn't by any stretch of the imagination beautiful. The court jester, Jasper, is a former wise man on the run after the king outlawed wisdom in the kingdom of Couscous. The fairy godmother is answerable to the Godmother Board of Trustees. And the glass slippers, as might be expected, are your podiatrist's worst nightmare....

The fantasy world Gray creates is delightfully tongue-in-cheek. There are kingdoms called Couscous and princesses named Asphalt and Concrete -- after all, there's no point in giving the older princesses decent names if only the youngest one is going to succeed. You can obtain degrees in wisdom from the Wise Man's Academy after learning to instantly assume the Air of Wisdom (one hand stroking beard, one eye wide open, the other tightly shut, and one leg bent) upon the sound of a whistle. And if you happen to be in a hurry, you have the option of going on an Express Quest (offered only in extreme circumstances), as opposed to a regular Quest.

Gray's writing is sprightly and energetic and often laugh-out-loud funny, and the wacky illustrations by Randy Cecil add to the fun. It's like M.M. Kaye's The Ordinary Princess meets Vivian Vande Velde's witty and rather modern treatments of Rumpelstiltskin, but without the slightly sugary quality of the first or the sharp sarcasm of the latter. Fairy tale fans who loved Kindl's Goose Chase and Ferris's Once Upon a Marigold should find The Ugly Princess & the Wise Fool to be similarly enjoyable. It isn't profound or groundbreaking, but it is a thoroughly entertaining concoction of wisdom and nonsense in exactly the right proportions.

by Jennifer Mo
26 November 2005

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