The Silk Princess, written and illustrated by Charles Santore, is a picture book for older children, with multiple paragraphs of text on every page, a relatively advanced vocabulary, and gorgeous, painted illustrations. The Silk Princess is Santore's interpretation of an ancient legend, which he describes in an afterword.
Princess Hsi-Ling Chi is scarcely noticed by her Emperor father, who only has eyes for his sons (probably a realistic detail for a story set in 2700 BC). One day, however, while in the palace gardens, the princess's observant eyes notice a cream-colored cocoon falling into her mother's tea. A string of delicate, shimmering thread unwinds in the hot liquid. The princess ties the thread around her waist, leaving the other end in her mother's hand, and sets out to see how long it is. Her journey takes her outside of the palace for the first time, up a mountain and over a bridge, and into the home of a mysterious old man who teaches her the secrets of harvesting and weaving silk. Through her knowledge of silk, a new luxury fabric, the young princess finds a way to be seen.
Younger readers will take the princess's journey at face value, while older readers will likely come to see it as a dream, though perhaps one that contains a message from the gods. When she returns, having been away overnight, the little princess finds her mother sitting under the same tree, unruffled, still holding the thread, talking about her afternoon nap. On the flip side, however, the princess has gained knowledge about silk that she couldn't have known on her own. This ambiguity offers fuel for discussion.
Several other details in the book offer potential discussion topics and/or educational tidbits about ancient China. When the princess leaves the palace, she is thrilled to be outside for the first time in her life, noting:
"I'm outside of the royal palace! Even Mother has never been this far!"
When she crosses a bridge, she drops one of her wooden shoes. Maidservants linger in the background near her mother, and the actual work of making the silk is, of course, passed off to the royal weavers. These are tiny glimpses into the pampered, yet circumscribed, world of Chinese royal women.
Santore's lovely, detailed illustrations bear out the dream-like quality of the princess's adventure. The old man, in particular, is shown in muted colors, like a shadow. Each page spread is a painting of ancient China such as one might see in a gallery. Santore uses brighter colors sparingly, mostly to highlight the princess herself against the more muted background. The paintings are lovingly detailed. Close inspection reveals the texture of a tree trunk, tufted blades of grass, and the pattern of an urn. The picture of a dragon is particularly imposing.
The book's language is poetic, simply crying out to be read aloud. Here are some small examples:
"The Great Emperor, descended from the sons of heaven, was a grand figure. Regal in his bearing, he reigned in splendor."
"Hsi-Ling Chi, anxious to begin the game, kissed her mother goodbye, bowed, and started on her way. Attached to the thread, the little princess glided away from her mother, like a kite on a gentle breeze.
She walked past rock formations representing the Holy Mountains, beside glistening pools, and continued on, looking back from time to time to see her mother getting smaller and smaller in the distance. Princess Hsi-Ling Chi had never been away from her mother before, yet she did not hesitate."
I like the combination of historical authenticity and universal childhood nature seen in Hsi-Ling Chi. She bows to her mother before she walks away. But she's also sad about her father's lack of attention, and curious about the broader world from which she's been isolated.
I would recommend The Silk Princess for family read-aloud for early elementary school children, up to at least third grade. Although it's about a princess, it's not at all a "girly" princess story, and I think that young boys will enjoy it, too. There is, after all, a fearsome dragon. It's a book that a family could read aloud with their 8-year-old boy and 5-year-old girl, and keep everyone, including the parents, happy. I'll be keeping an eye out for Charles Santore's other work.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.