Unruly. We can start with that. There's something rough and challenging about the word. It calls to mind glamorous rogues who are always getting in bar fights. Elizabeth Taylor in Taming of the Shrew. Wouldn't you like to be thought of as 'unruly' from time to time? Slightly unsafe? Unpredictable, like the high-heeled little spitfire on the cover of this new picture book?
Let's open her up and see.
On the title page we see a uniformed maid, an old lady with a big bottom, high heels and garters, down on her knees with a bucket scrubbing marker off the striped wallpaper. On the next we meet our evil little regent, rollerskating down the hall in a pink tutu and bow, marking the wall with a thick china marker. Her eyes are cast back at the maid and she is smiling a tiny, rotten smile.
I think I'm going to like this. I love characters that actually shock children.
Minerva von Vyle was a mischievous child
who was coddled and spoiled and allowed to run wild.
She was peevish and pushy and got her own way
by throwing hysterical fits every day.
This, while we see Minerva standing on the mantel dumping a vase of tulips on the dog and rejecting the snacks and toys proffered her by a downtrodden household staff. She's wearing fairy wings, but her shadow has HORNS. YES.
I see where this is going and I am pleading with you, E.S. Redmond, whoever you are, don't break Minerva completely!
Minerva has a pink pony, a very sharp dressage hat, and parents who travel and shop and ignore her - hey, I had the mom's haircut one time! I loved that haircut! I should totally have accessorized it with ropes of pearls, a zebra-print pencil skirt, and a disdainful expression, like the mom. But in fact, my look at the time was more like Minerva's - tux shirt, combat boots, purple leggings, and cutaway coat. I am just adoring the style of these illustrations.
While her parents order espresso in Rome, Minerva's at home raising Cain. She's running up the phone bill, drinking soda, and she has graffitti-ed a portrait of her dad (or possibly granddad) with a spiky mohawk and a black bikini. That's my girl.
The text, as you can tell from the example above, rhymes. Many parents look for rhyming text in their picture books - it's easy to read aloud because the emphasis is already mapped out by the meter, it encourages phonemic awareness (yes I know phrases like that), and allows for quicker memorization. This fellow, who cusses even more than I do, requires that a picture book rhymes. (I've been looking for an excuse to use that link for weeks.)
But the thing is, rhyming text in picture books has to rhyme just about perfectly in order for it to work. It must also follow the meter with great exactitude, otherwise it is very hard to read aloud. And at the same time, the author must avoid the monotony that is the usual result of perfect rhymes and strict adherence to meter. You can end up in Trochaic Hell pretty quickly - think "Jack and Jill went up the hill," and then think about how much you would hate reading that every night.
Let's not get too technical here. I'll just say that the dreaded DUM-de DUM-de DUM-de DUM is not something you're going to have to worry about in The Unruly Queen. E. S. Redmond pitches her tent somewhere in the vicinity of Dr. Seuss, throwing a whole bunch of three- and four-syllable words into an anapestic meter that she deviates from enough to keep the reading conversational but not so much that you'll get lost.
The rhyme scheme, however, is simple, predictable AABB. It's good - it helps to anchor those long lines and galloping meter.
BACK TO OUR STORY:
Enter Nanny. Nanny is Minerva's 53rd nanny in as many weeks, but this nanny is not about to be terrorized. In fact, with her striped stockings, broomstick skirt, and Bette Midler hair, she is a little terrifying herself. There's even a spider dangling from her purple carpetbag.
Nanny describes a kingdom of thorns and caves and beasts over which Minerva may comfortably rule: "You can smash things to bits! Throw your food on the floor!" and Minerva decides that doesn't sound very nice, and she will - rebelliously - brush her teeth and take a bath and behave so that she can stay in her house with her butler and her dolls.
Well. The kid is threatened into behaving, which she then does out of spite. The parents never make a reappearance. We do not learn whether Minerva is only acting out because she is neglected, or if her parents have fled because she is such a terror. The nanny and Minerva never so much as smile at each other. The servants remain downtrodden. I would not call this a successful parable.
On the other hand, I kind of enjoy that the book is not a teaching tool. This is a book to be appreciated as a silly story only. No kid is as awful as Minerva, and no parent would threaten a child with expulsion to a dark and distant land to get them to behave. At least, no parent would achieve success with such a threat. We've all promised to mail a child to Greenland once or twice I'm sure. The difference is, we're parents, not nannies, and our kids don't believe us.
I mentioned the art earlier but now it's time to use a bunch of words: pen and ink and watercolor in a limited palette of slimy greens, royal purple, and brown. Like a poison swamp with irises growing in it. Ms. Redmond's precise line is all funky angles and curlicues, put to good effect on the tasselled drapes and carpets, chandeliers, window seats, claw-foot tubs, and spindly furniture that decorate Minerva's very formal mansion.
Yon beasties that inhabit wicked Nanny's imaginary mountain are snaggletoothed, lop-eared, pot-bellied, and expressive. The trouble that they get up to while Minerva is learning to toe the line is more than enough fun to compensate for Minerva's misery.
The Unruly Queen is like the acid flip side to Forsythia & Me, another picture book with fancy detailed pen and ink and watercolor illustrations. Might make a fun storytime for first graders: "I've got one book about a really nice kid and another book about a kid who isn't nice at all! Which one do you want first?" Me, I'd probably ask for the one about the mean kid.