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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
An Unusual Princess
by Wu Meizhen
Age Range: 9-11
Sissy is nicknamed ‘Princess’ by her doting father, Professor Jiang; she has a ‘princess’ lifestyle, living in a big apartment with her own beautiful room, gorgeous ‘princess’ dresses to wear and attends a private school. Not only that, she has a very special talking teddy bear called Yomi.
When tragedy strikes and her father and mother are killed in a car accident, Sissy’s life changes dramatically as she has to go and live with her father’s cruel first wife, Mrs Tong. Now Sissy is reduced to living in a small, poky room and being the live-in servant, working from dawn to dusk serving her new family. Sissy’s only companion is Yomi and she wonders if she will ever find a home where she can be truly happy again.
Chinese author Wu Meizhen has cleverly woven a modern story with a fairy-tale element. Sissy’s favourite story is Snow White but the parallel of her life can be drawn with another classic fairy story Cinderella; Mrs Tong being seen as the wicked step-mother and Sissy as Cinderella. Sissy sometimes dreams about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and characters she meets become modern-day dwarfs; the school gardener becomes known as ‘Good-Looking’ and his brother, ‘Smartypants’.
There is a cast of strong supporting characters too: from Sissy’s best friend Caitlin, their spiteful classmate Willow Yang, Bartholomew her half-brother, Owen, Caitlin’s cousin, Good-Looking, Smartypants and Little Charlie who all add colour to the story.
The book is divided into three parts with a contents page for each section. Meizhen manages to keep the suspense and mystery surrounding Sissy’s family until towards the end of part two but by part three it did feel like the story had lost a bit of the momentum. Although the reader doesn’t find out Sissy’s true parentage until almost the end of part three, the story is centred more on some of the peripheral characters so perhaps doesn’t hold the attention in quite the same way as it did during the first two parts.
It is quite difficult to know what age to pitch this book at too. The young protagonist goes from age six to nine throughout the course of the story. It has Yomi the talking bear as one of the central characters which will have appeal for the younger end of the 9-11 age groups. On the other hand, the book is 449 pages long which might be considered a challenge for this group, but the subject matter may put off an older reader.
Nevertheless, An Unusual Princess is an engaging tale and as one of the few children’s fiction books from China to be translated into English in recent years it does give an opportunity for children to experience Chinese literature. The translation by Petula Parris Huang is seamless and makes this an easy book to read.