The Restless Girls: A light and fun retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton & Angela Barrett (illustrator)The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton & Angela Barrett (illustrator)

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton & Angela Barrett (illustrator)I loved the story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses when I was a little girl, but was also terribly disappointed with it. Twelve sisters sneak out of a secret door in their bedroom every evening to dance the night away in a magical fairyland, with only their worn-out shoes left as evidence of their rule-breaking.

And then their father comes along to spoil all the fun, setting potential suitors outside their door in order to find out what’s going on, and eventually marrying the youngest (or oldest, depending on the version) to the clever gardener who discovers the secret. It was meant to be a happy ending, but with fairyland destroyed and the sisters all married off, my eight-year old self felt utterly cheated.

Luckily Jessie Burton is here to give us a much more satisfying take on the familiar story. Twelve young princesses (each with their own name and personal interests) are sequestered in the palace by their father after their mother’s tragic death in a motorcar accident. They’re bored and stifled, but behind a portrait of their mother in their windowless bedroom, they find a miracle.

A staircase takes them deep beneath the ground and through three beautiful forests to the shores of a lake. On the other side is a palace within a tree, filled with talking animals, delicious food and endless jazz music. A beautiful lioness assures them that they’re welcome there, and so the nightly tradition of dancing and music begins.

But when their father discovers their worn-out shoes, he’s determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. After banishing Frida (the eldest) from the kingdom, the younger eleven are terrified that one of the suitors he calls in will spill the beans on their wondrous secret and claim one of them as his wife.

They relax a little under a string of failures, but when a strapping young man lands his plane on the beach beneath the palace walls, they’re afraid. He seems much cleverer than the others…

Jessie Burton probably felt the same way about the original story that I did, and so spins a lovely new version that keeps the familiar beats, but subverts nearly everything else (I won’t give away the big twist at the end, but it’s great!)

From the princesses reimagined as dark-skinned girls with natural hair, to the story being set in the fictional country of Kalia (at a guess, it’s placed somewhere in South America) the story is filled with peacocks, mangos, motorcars, jazz, colour and silk pyjamas.

Angela Barrett provides the artwork, and her delicate and whimsical touch suits the material beautifully – this is certainly not the first fairy tale she’s contributed to. If I have one complaint it’s that there are very few full-page illustrations – most of her pictures are very small headers or footers, and there are many imaginative scenes that don’t get a corresponding illustration.

It’s very much a chapter book rather than a picture book (so don’t think you can read it to your child in one sitting), but is told in a light, friendly prose that addresses the reader directly on several occasions (the identity of the storyteller comes as another sweet surprise).

It’s a beautifully presented book, and would make a fantastic gift. After this, I don’t think I could ever go back to the original fairy tale – though if you’re after another feminist retelling, but sure to check out Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls of the Kingfisher Club.

Published in 2019. From acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Jessie Burton comes her debut middle-grade — a girl-forward fairy tale retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” about sisterhood, imagination, and bravery, lushly packaged and with beautiful full-color illustrations. For the twelve daughters of King Alberto, Queen Laurelia’s death is a disaster beyond losing a mother. The king decides his daughters must be kept safe at all costs, and for the girls, those costs include their lessons, their possessions, and most importantly, their freedom. But the sisters, especially the eldest, Princess Frida, will not bend to this fate. She still has one possession her father cannot take: the power of her imagination. And so, with little but wits and ingenuity to rely on, Frida and her sisters begin their fight to be allowed to live on their own terms. The Restless Girls is a sparkling whirl of a fairy tale–one that doesn’t need a prince to save the day, and instead is full of brave, resourceful, clever young women.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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