The Secret Lives of Princesses, by Philippe Lechermeier, illustrated by Rebecca Dautremer (originally published in France, English edition Sterling Books, 2010).
On the simplest level, this is a guidebook to many strange and odd princesses, those who were never pinned down in the "classic" fairytales, and made to wear pink (although some choose to do so anyway!). Many of these princesses have peculiar habits and tastes, and live non-traditional lives--there's Princess Somnia, who sleeps her life away in a beautifully comfy looking bed, Princess Oblivia, who has no memory at all, the Princess of the Sands --"Daughter of the Queen of Saba, this princess lives in a castle of sand whose location depends on direction of the winds' (page 51), and many, many more. In true Guidebook fashion, the gallery of princesses includes informational asides on princessly accouterments-- veils and cradles, gifts and confidantes--all the elements and accessories that one associates with "princesses."
But moving beyond this straightforward-ness, this is a book that celebrates the imagination. Each princess is introduced, we read the brief synopsis, verging on free verse, that tells of her otherness, and the book moves on to the next, but each princess seems to have more story behind her...story that the reader can explore in her own daydreams. And the art that accompanies the text reinforces the sense of stories beyond the text. Some of the pictures disturbed me, others I found alien, some I found fascinatingly lovely. The style, as you can see from the cover, isn't the unicorny medievally style that some of us (naming no names) equate with princesses--in the imaginings of Dautremer, the reader is taken to stranger, more surreal worlds.
Which almost certainly means I wouldn't have liked it as a child, at least on first reading. I wanted my princesses tidily tucked into unicorn tapestries....but maybe, returning to it, as I would have done (I never had enough books) I would have let my own imaginary princesses leave the castles of Europe...I think it would have been salubrious as all get out for my walled-garden imagination.
From the Princess of the Sands (my favorite, shown at right):
She bathes in oases,
knows the name of every stone and star,
and wears a veil as protection from the storms.
She grows desert roses.
Speaking of Europe--it is a lovely thing to see the Snow Queen's great-granddaughter imagined as dark of hair and skin, petting her polar bear companion. And indeed, there are many non-European girls depicted here, earning the book a reading in color label.
At Through The Looking Glass, you can read an interview with Derry Wilkens of Sterling Books, describing how the English edition of this book came about. The translation was very challenging--among other issues, many of the princesses' names are puns, which of course don't translate, so most of them had to be re-named!
At the book's website there is a quiz that let's you find out what sort of Princess you yourself are. I am a Whimsical Princess, which pleases me.
(review copy received from the publisher, for Cybils consideration)