Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: French Ducks in Venice by Garret Freymann-Weyr, illustrated by Erin McGuire (ARC)


French Ducks in Venice
by Garret Freymann-Weyr, illustrated by Erin McGuire
2011 | 56 pages | Picture Book

Polina Panova is a seamstress who lives in Venice, California. Georges and Cecile are ducks who live on the canal outside Polina's door. They consider themselves to be French, and Polina to be a beautiful princess. Georges and Cecile also romanticize Polina's "prince," a movie star named Sebastian Sterling. One day, though, their romantic notions come crashing down when Sebastian announces that he must go, and leaves Polina behind. Georges, despite Cecile's disapproval, can't imagine how Polina will move on without Sebastian and begins immediately trying to mend Polina's broken heart. What he - as well as the reader - learn, however, is that healing takes time, and though we can become happy again, we never fully forget those we love and lose.

This modern fairy tale's important message works on a couple of levels. The first and most obvious interpretation is a challenge to the happily ever after motif popularized by the Disney princess franchise. Polina is a princess not just because she's pretty and has a handsome boyfriend. Rather, it is her talent as a dressmaker and her kindness toward her duck friends that truly define her. When Sebastian leaves, she is suitably sad, but there is never a moment where she grovels, begs, or even feels truly sorry for herself. She is willing to let go, and to allow herself to heal and move on. In a world where princesses almost always wind up married to princes, this book's focus on the princess as a person, rather than as a part of a romanticized pairing is a welcome and refreshing change.

The second interpretation of this story actually focuses more on the ducks, who I saw as the child characters of the story. Georges and Cecile love Polina, and they are confused and hurt when Sebastian, whom they previously trusted, hurts their beloved friend. They can't understand why Sebastian and Polina can't work things out, and they want to find the quick fix that will bring everything back to normal. In my mind, these feelings parallel the way children sometimes feel when parents divorce, or a parent's partner is suddenly out of the picture. Without being overly didactic, this book teaches children how to channel those feelings and provides the comforting reassurance that even when we lose someone we love, life goes on, as does happiness.

French Ducks in Venice is a book unlike any others I have read this year. It combines elements of fairy tale fantasy with the realities of loss and empathy, and creates this unique world where talking ducks make sense, and strawberry jam is the key to a beautiful dress. Erin McGuire's illustrations beautifully depict the environment of the canal. There are some truly gorgeous scenes featuring wide expanses of sea and sky that are so atmospheric I felt as though I could reach out and truly touch them. The ducks, though accurately drawn as ducks for  the most part, also have these little sparks of personality in their eyes and beaks that bring them to life as characters and will keep kids interested even when Polina must deal with more adult issues. I also thought it was a really interesting choice on McGuire's part that she never shows Sebastian's face. This is one story that is not about the prince, and excluding his face from the illustrations really drives that point home, and focuses our attention where it belongs - on Polina's journey from disappointment to renewed happiness.

I think the audience for this book is slightly older than the average picture book reader. Girls who are interested in princesses will be drawn to it, but there is quite a bit of text, and kids with longer attention spans are the ones who will have the patience to listen to the full story, or to read it on their own.  I would love to see this book used in classroom studies of fairy tales. There is a lot to be learned from the comparison of this book to other more common princess tales, and I think it's important for girls - and boys - of all ages to see a type of happily ever after that isn't perfect, but still has significance. I also think this book would be a wonderful gift for anyone who has been recently dumped. I was thinking as I was reading that this book would have been helpful after several of my own break-ups.

Garret Freymann-Weyr is also the author of several YA titles. Erin McGuire also illustrated the final book in Susan Patron's Hard Pan trilogy, Lucky for Good, and Anne Ursu's recently published novel, Breadcrumbs.

I received a finished copy of French Ducks in Venice from the publisher. It will be released on December 13, 2011.

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