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The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-to-be
by Mini Grey
Knopf, 2003
28 pages

According to her jacket-flap biography, Mini Grey was given her name after being born in a Mini Cooper in a parking lot in Wales. Among her hobbies are welding and playing the accordion. You'd expect a very funny, very silly book from an author/artist like this, and that's what you get in The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-to-be.

Like John Scieszka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf, this book tells a traditional fairy tale from an unexpected point of view. Most unexpected, in fact: who would imagine that a pea - a pea! - could make a convincing and lively main character. But so he - she – it - does, in spite of being a small green sphere with only two thoughtful eyes for features.

The front matter doesn't identify the medium, but the illustrations look like watercolor and gouache. Many of the spreads are broken up into smaller frames, either snapshots scattered on a table, pictures on a wall or a spread of Polaroids of unsuitable Princesses (too scruffy! Too tidy! Too grumpy! Too pink! Strange pets!). The more traditional spreads are often dramatic views from the ceiling or foreshortened views, like the semi-titular heroine arriving in a thunderstorm, with lightning entering along with her.

The Queen bears a strong resemblance to Her Majesty Elizabeth II of England, with her hair in curlers under a kerchief and little pea-like eyes. The Prince rather looks like HRH Prince William, tending towards backpacking and eco-tourism. The illustrations are heavily outlined in sepia and black, and the color has a painterly, luscious feel, intense without being garish. A bowl full of peas looks good enough to eat, and the mattresses look like a pile of hamburgers and fried eggs, limes and olives. (The pea complains, "I spent most nights in the darkness under a pile of twenty mattresses and feather beds and a princess.")

The writing is as funny and snappy as the above sentence. The gardening theme seen throughout, which we think has to do with the nature of the narrator, has a surprising twist at the end for a satisfying payoff. Every illustration is full of interesting details; it takes more than one reading to see all the layers.

This is Mini Grey's first book published in the U.S.; she is also the author/artist of Egg Drop, which I hope to be able to find soon. The Very Smart Pea is a very funny book! - S.B.
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