I go through cycles with book discovery. Sometimes I rely on recommendations from my book club, other times I pay attention to what the book blogging community seems to like, and occasionally I’ll go on a “throwback” kick and look up the backlist titles of favorite or new favorite authors. With Duncan Tonatiuh’s picture book The Princess and the Warrior, it was pure serendipity. I had planned to visit the Abrams booth at Book Expo America (an enormous annual book fair)(in other words, heaven!) to look for another title, and saw an image of the cover and note that Tonatiuh would be signing copies later. I quickly identified the story as fairy tale/myth, the art as traditional Central American, and was instantly sold.
The Princess and the Warrior is the story of Itza and Popoca, who according to legend lived long ago in the area near modern-day Mexico City. Princess Itza spent her days in the fields, teaching poetry to the workers. She had no interest in leaving her life to live in a palace, and so she was not swayed by the rich men who wanted to marry her for her beauty. Popoca, a simple warrior, won her heart with honesty and a promise of loyalty. In order to gain her father’s blessing, Popoca went out to fight a fierce enemy clan. When he was close to defeating them, Itza was tricked by the enemy’s messenger and fell into a sleep from which she never awakened. Popoca kept his promise to stay by Itza, and in time they turned into two volcanoes which look over Mexico City today.
I am HERE for fairy tale retellings and myths and legends, and this one is a great one, wrapped up in a beautiful package. Tonatiuh’s retelling includes not only a bittersweet story (ugh, the angst of lovers divided by deception!), but he also highlights the use of poetry, sprinkles Nahuatl and Spanish words throughout, and focuses on characters who defy gender stereotypes (Itza by valuing honesty and loyalty above riches and compliments, Popoca by accepting Itza as she is and promising to stay by her forever and then following through). Love story based on honesty, loyalty, and intelligence, featuring Native American characters, with a mythic background? It just hits on so many of my favorite things, and we’re not even counting the fact that I spent three years in grad school focused on Latin American history. I really like this book, friends.
On to the art! Which is basically a bonus for me at this point but for most people it can make/break a picture book. As you may be able to tell from the cover, the style pays homage to traditional pre-Columbian art, where people and animals are always depicted in profile. The digital collage method that Tonatiuh used highlights the texture of the textiles of the characters' dress (linen and other woven materials are distinguishable), and the colors and backdrops are bright and active. The style might take a minute to adjust to, but it enhances the story and adds another layer of context to the legend. There's plenty for little eyes to look at, and the Jaguar Claw warrior panels are particularly engaging.
In all, The Princess and the Warrior is a lovely picture book suitable for all ages. I plan to gift it to my young cousin who is obsessed with princesses, and I'll also strongly encourage my elementary school teacher friends to stock it in their classroom libraries. Diverse kidlit FTW!
Recommended for: fans of myth, legend, and pre-Columbian history, and anyone with a stake in supporting diverse children's literature and #ownvoices.
Fine print: I picked up a copy of this title for review consideration at BEA. I did not receive any compensation for this post.