THE PRINCESS AND HER PANTHER

princessTitle: The Princess and her Panther

WriterWendy Orr

IllustratorLauren Stringer

Published by: Allen & Unwin, 2010

Karen’s Plot Summary: When two sisters – a brave princess and a timid panther – spend the night camping, they are tormented by the sounds and shadows of the night until both of them decide enough is enough and chase their fears away.

Character: The characters in this story are simply beautiful. We have the princess – the big sister – who is seemingly unflappable in the face of strange noises in the night, and continuously brave, but we discover towards the end that she might be a little scared after all. In contrast, we have the panther – the little sister dressed up like a cat – who is terribly afraid of everything. The refrain, “The princess was brave, and the panther tried to be,” is the heart of the book. The transformation of the princess from brave to scared happens with my favourite phrase in the entire book: “The princess tried to be brave, and the panther tried to try.” I think it’s possibly the most perfect sentence of characterisation in the history of the universe.  Add that to the incredibly powerful climax when both the princess and the panther decide they are done with being brave – “Enough is enough!” – and you have a story with enough heart and soul to read again and again until the end of time.

I love the camaraderie between the sisters; the princess never reprimands the panther for her fear and the ultimate victory is only won when together they stand strong. Both of them undergo significant change and yet their love for each other is the constant through the book.

Story arc & pacing: The story has incredible momentum from the first page to the last. The tension increases with each page turn and the illustrations – particularly the facial expressions of the princess and the panther – add to the overall impact. The story is lyrical and gentle but packs a punch. There is a clear story arc that gathers speed through the middle – especially in the second half –  until the climax where you want to shout along with the sisters that enough really is enough.

The structure is a little more complex than some picture books, however, as there appears to be two distinct parts to the middle and two distinct Turning Points in the story. There’s also more spreads than in a standard picture book. This is a 36-page picture book (including end pages) which is an interesting variation to the 32-page we’re used to seeing, however the story needs every single one of those pages.

BEGINNING: Spreads 1-2 (Characters and the problem are introduced/developed.)

The princess and her panther set out across the desert sand (also known as the sandpit in the backyard) and we soon discover that our little panther is a bit of a scaredy cat.

TURNING POINT 1: Spread 2 (Problem is clearly identified; working on a solution)

We know the panther is scared of going on this grand adventure, even though we don’t know why just yet.

MIDDLE 1: Spreads 3-8 (Setting of the scene, increase in tension.)

The princess and her panther continue their journey set up camp, and watch the day turn into night. Nightfall brings with it a distinct increase in tension. These spreads are very atmospheric and you have a sense of impending doom as you read them, even though the language is beautiful. It really is a case of every word earning its place.

TURNING POINT 2: Spread 9 (Biggest problem is introduced)

This is where we first realise there are noises and shadows of the night that are terrifying for the panther and beginning to unsettle the princess. In the illustrations we get the first sign that the princess might not be as brave as she makes out to be and if she’s scared, then that means we have a reason to be scared too.

MIDDLE 2: Spreads 9-11 (The problems increase.)

The problems get worse! There’s leaf-snakes on the tent, an owl-witch in the night sky, a frog-monster wandering around. Surely it can’t get any worse! But it does…

CLIMAX: Spreads 12-13 (Trouble at its worst)

Oh no! On Spread 12 a great dog-wolf arrives! It’s enough to have hearts of young and old bursting with fear, wondering what on earth is going to happen to our princess and her panther. But when you turn the page, the relief is epic. The princess and her panther decide enough really is enough and shout loudly into the night. And we can all start to breath again as the page finishes with, “And just like that…”

END: Spreads 14-15 (A resolution to the problem.)

The snake, witch, monster and wolf all run away and our brave princess and panther return to their tent and descend into peaceful slumber.

CODA: Spread 16 (A lovely final image or reversal)

The final page is beautiful as it echoes the very first page. The story starts with, ‘One afternoon’ and finishes with ‘one night’. This circular structure is beautiful as there is so much that has happened between the first and the last page, that we need the relief of an ending that is familiar and peaceful and simple.

Language: When I grow up I want to write like Wendy Orr. Seriously. Every single word has earnt its place in this book and I can’t think of one example where I could think of a different word that would be better. It is finely crafted, sparser at the beginning and end and more luscious through the dramatic middle, and includes onomatopoeiac  gems such as ‘croakety groaning’ and ‘hiss-siss slippering’. There’s a playfulness to the word choice but it’s not pretentious in the slightest. The simple refrain of, “The princess was brave, and the panther tried to be,”grounds us in stripped-back and raw writing, while in contrast, the descriptive text is lyrical and rhythmical and ah! Just perfect. It’s an awesome book for reading aloud.

There’s so many literary devices at play that it takes multiple re-readings to pick them all up. There are personifications, use of alliteration, some internal rhyme schemes and as already mentioned, onomatopoeia but somehow the story retains its simplicity. I think it’s a case of Wendy knowing exactly when to use each of these devices that makes the writing so beautiful.

The page turns are perfectly placed, especially in the climax where you want to turn the page but are scared to turn the page but then you have to turn the page because the fear is so great you can’t wait a second longer.

And I particularly love the fact the word ‘sisters’ is only mentioned once, on the second-last page of the book. There’s something very poignant about the timing and placement of the word which defines the relationship between the main characters.

Illustrations:  I could study these acrylic paint illustrations for hours. Lauren Stringer’s work is simply amazing. The colours, the texture, the use of light leave me speechless. There’s a warmth to each page but when things get scary, there’s also a menacing feeling that creeps in from the edges of the page in the darkness. The facial expressions on the sisters are perfect and give such insight into their respective characters.

The culprits of the noises in the night are featured throughout the book but you will need to go on a treasure hunt to find them. I adore the depth of thought that has gone into constructing such a cohesive book with so many layers.

I particularly love the way the illustrations take us from reality to fantasy and back again and add to the story arc. In the first spread we see that the girls are in the backyard, with a wagon loaded up with camping gear. By the second spread the wagon has morphed into a very distinguished camel, and so the line between real and imagined begins to blur. Throughout the middle of the book we are smack bang in fantasy where the illos lead us to believe they really are a princess and a panther all the while being real girls as well. There is a beautiful page – possibly my favourite – where the panther’s eye’s glow like a cat’s in the light of a lantern. Then in the final spread, we are back in the backyard with two kids camping out under a red blanket that just a page ago was a red silk tent. It really is a book that takes you on a complete journey through the illustrations alone.

Interplay between text and illustrations: The combination of Lauren’s rich, expressive illustrations that are focussed on atmosphere and character, combined with Wendy’s deft touch with words creates one of my favourite conundrums of picture books: 1+1=3. The sum is greater than the individual parts.

The illustrations alone would be beautiful.

The text alone would be mesmerising.

Put them together and you have something ethereal and magical and altogether enthralling. And I’m running out of adjectives.

Design and layout: The first letter on the first page is a fairy-tale like rendition of the letter ‘O’, reminiscent of what you would read in a “Once upon a time” story. I love the fact it resonates as a fairy tale but then deviates. It’s not “Once upon a time,” after all; it’s the far more ordinary, “One afternoon…” but it hints at the magic that lies ahead.

The rest of the text is in a simple, clear font with just a hint of whimsy on the curls of letters. The words used to describe the sounds of the snake/owl/wolf are in italics, and the shout of, “Enough is enough,” is written in a bigger size and jumps off the page.

Like the rest of the book, the font doesn’t try too hard, yet it has just the right amount of class for the story and I can’t imagine it being written in anything else.

There’s also a lovely variation in page layout although the middle of the story has a dark palette due to the night. There’s a beautiful spread where we see a silhouette of the girls in the tent placed in the middle of a white page, a soft yellow glow emanating from within, that provides much-needed relief from the heaviness of the night.

I also love the end pages. The first end page is the before of the adventure and the last end page is the after. There’s lots of fun details to find and compare from start to end.

Lessons for my writing:
– beautiful writing is simple when it needs to be and poetic when it needs to be. Use the right literary device at the right time for greatest impact.
– not all great books work on the beginning-middle-end Three Act structure. Don’t be afraid to play with structure if the story needs it.
– stories with depth and layers survive multiple readings and close analysis. Aim for that.
– sometimes stories take years to get right. I remember Wendy saying this story was 20 years in the making. Don’t rush!

Karen’s final thought: THE PRINCESS AND HER PANTHER is my favourite picture book of all time and every time I read it I’m reminded why. It is so thoughtfully created, the text and illustrations are masterpieces in their own rights and together they create something truly magical.

Crunching the numbers: 

(For information on how to interpret these graphs, please see the graphs on SOMEBODY’S HOUSE.)

Total Word Count Graph:

total wordcount 250215

Word Count by Spread:

word count 250215

Pacing Graph:

pacing 250215

Structural Elements Graph:

structure 250215

 

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