I’m going through a weird phase right now, where I pick up a book I’ve been looking forward to, can’t get into it, find something else that I randomly start and can’t stop. In my attempt to get into a normal start-a-book-finish-a-book rhythm, I took a deliberate break and read this little middle grade book as a sort of palate cleanser.
THE WIDE-AWAKE PRINCESS
by E.D. Baker
Published by: Bloomsbury, 2010
Ebook: 288 pages
Series: Wide-Awake Princess #1
My rating: 5,5/10
First sentence: “We can’t let it happen again,” Queen Karolina said, dabbing at the tears that glistened in her deep blue eyes.
In this stand-alone fairy tale, Princess Annie is the younger sister to Gwen, the princess destined to be Sleeping Beauty. When Gwennie pricks her finger and the whole castle falls asleep, only Annie is awake, and only Annie-blessed (or cursed?) with being impervious to magic-can venture out beyond the rose-covered hedge for help. She must find Gwen’s true love to kiss her awake.
But who is her true love? The irritating Digby? The happy-go-lucky Prince Andreas, who is holding a contest to find his bride? The conniving Clarence, whose sinister motives couldn’t possibly spell true love? Joined by one of her father’s guards, Liam, who happened to be out of the castle when the sleeping spell struck, Annie travels through a fairy tale land populated with characters both familiar and new as she tries to fix her sister and her family . . . and perhaps even find a true love of her own.
What if Sleeping Beauty’s parents didn’t behave like fools twice? So they messed up their firstborn’s fairy gifts and the evil fairy made sure that Gwen will prick her finger on a spinning wheel when she turns 16. Except a good fairy made sure that, instead of dying, Gwen only falls asleep for one hundred years, and can be kissed awake by her true love to lift the curse. Sleeping Beauty as we know it. But with their second child, Annie, the king and queen took care to make smarter choices for her christening gifts. Instead of beauty and a gorgeous singing voice, Annie’s got the ability to resist magic of any kind.
I really liked the beginning of this story. Annie is (almost) the only person in her kingdom who isn’t enhanced by magic, so next to her beautiful sister and mother, she looks rather plain. Princes and princesses are all beautified and seem perfect because when magic is easy to obtain, why not be pretty, right? This puts Annie in a difficult spot from the start because she is a princess but she looks … normal. Her personal fairy gift/curse to resist all magic comes with another caveat. Whenever she is too close to or touches somebody enchanted, their magic fades. Annie’s mother doesn’t want Annie anywhere near because then her own beauty will fade. The same goes for Gwen.
So Annie spends time with people who don’t care about looks – she talks to the palace servants, learns how to ride a horse from the stable boys, chats with the guards, and silently suffers being so distant from her family. It’s a great set-up for a novel, even if it hammers its message in with a sledgehammer later on.
Despite the king and queen’s careful precautions, the curse on Gwen does come to pass, everyone falls asleep and only Annie is unaffected because magic doesn’t work on her. She teams up with Liam, the palace guard who was outside the castle when the curse struck, and goes on an adventure to round up all the princes in the kingdom. She’s not sure who is her sister’s true love, so just in case her fiancé isn’t, bringing a few more princes for safety sounds like a good plan. On their adventures, they meet a version of Hansel and Gretel, the frog prince, and many other characters who seem familiar but original.
The idea is cute enough, as are the brief encounters with fairies, princes, princesses, and lost children. But there is absolutely no depth to this story whatsoever. I haven’t read middle grade books in a long while and I don’t really know how forgiving to be about the on-the-nose message. You see, Annie is special because she does boy-stuff (riding) and non-royal stuff (talking to servants like they’re actual human beings). Apparently, you can only be kind if you’re not beautiful because everyone who is pretty – usually by magic fairy gift – happens to be a major douchebag. The princes, even the ones who seem okay at first glance, turn out to be shallow, money-grabbing idiots, the girls are even shallower, obsessed with their looks and being royalty and with no interests of their own.
At times, it seemed that Annie and Liam are the only two decent people in the entire kingdom. Some side characters are at least not complete jerks, but have one character flaw or another that makes them not as good as the protagonists. In the tournament for prince Andreas’ hand especially, I loathed the side characters. Except for Annie, all the participating girls were shallow, unlikable idiots. The “tests” in that tournament included things such as horse riding, how to keep dancing when your partner stomps on your feet, and eating food. Because learn this lesson, young girls: You must be able to eat everything and enjoy it! Except we all know you must also be pretty and take care of your body… there’s a real-world dilemma for you. But since only Annie masters all these tasks, because she is the protagonist and thus perfect, it’s not really something that encourages readers to think for themselves.
On the one hand, I’m willing to forgive the stereotypes and tropes, because this was written for very young kids. On the other, I always think children – even small ones – should be challenged and treated like real people. Just because somebody is young doesn’t mean they can’t grasp big ideas or see that treating someone badly just because they’re not beautiful is wrong. This isn’t the most thought-provoking children’s book out there, but it does mix up fairy tales in a really cute way. So ignoring the extremely black and white characters and the predictably convenient plot, I have to say the book still offered me a couple of hours of brainless fun.
MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Good-ish