Basic Plot Summary: A prince wants to marry a genuine princess, but has difficulty finding one whom he finds suitable. One stormy night, a girl claiming to be a princess shows up at the castle, dripping wet and seeking shelter. The queen doubts she is actually a princess and tests her by placing a single pea under 20 mattresses and feather beds. The next morning, the princess is bruised and tired, after a sleepless night, proving her sensitivity, which confirms her royal pedigree. The prince and princess are married and the pea is displayed in a museum.
Hans Christian Andersen included this story in his first collection of fairy tales, published in 1835, stating that he had heard the story told as a folk tale when he was a child. He was very proud of this first volume of stories and disappointed by the poor critical reception. He felt that it was his fairy tales that would make his name and, of course, he was ultimately correct. Some feel that this story represented the author’s own feelings of being seen as unworthy by Danish society and in constant need of proving himself. The story has been adapted for opera, television and film and a very successful Broadway musical comedy, Once Upon a Mattress, which featured Carol Burnett. I’ve always liked this story, although I am pretty sure I couldn’t possibly sleep on 20 mattresses (for fear of falling off). Does this make me a princess? I’m pretty sure it does.
The Princess and the Pea – Using oil paints, printed paper and palette paper, author/illustrator Rachel Isadora sets this story in Africa, with a prince who travels the world to find his princess. He meets girls from three different regions of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya) and they all say hello in different languages. When he returns home, a princess shows up at his house and the story follows the original from there, ending with the pea going to the museum. I love the artwork and the bold colors and patterns. A note in the back of the book translates the three different versions of ‘hello.’ I liked this one a lot. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007)
The Princess and the Pea in Miniature – Author/illustrator Lauren Child never liked the fact that the princess complained to her hostess about the pea under the mattresses, so the princess here keeps her poor sleep to herself and only gives her discomfort away when grimacing while bending to pick up a teacup. The story text here is fun and conversational, with text that changes sizes and fonts to emphasize certain words. The artwork is extraordinary. Ms. Child crafted miniature scenes from paper, dollhouse furniture and other homemade items and acclaimed photographer Polly Borland captured the images for the book. It’s a delightful and visually appealing version of the story. (Hyperion Books for Children, 2006)
Once Upon a Princess and a Pea – In a very character-based update to the story, author Ann Campbell gives both the prince and princess more investment and control over their lives and their choices. They meet on the road when the princess is fleeing from an intended arranged marriage and the prince is interviewing (and rejecting) princesses, per his parents’ instructions. Illustrator Kathy Osborn Young makes her picture book debut here, after making a name for herself as a frequent cover artist for New Yorker magazine. Her illustrations here are colorful, but a little on the surreal side. I really liked this take on the traditional story. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1993)
The Penguin and the Pea – This version sticks pretty closely to the original, other than the fact that the characters are all penguins. Author/illustrator Janet Perlman has rewritten a few different fairy tales with penguin characters, as well. There were really no other changes to the story to accommodate the inclusion of penguins, which makes me think Ms. Perlman just really enjoyed drawing anthropomorphic penguins. The artwork began as ink drawings on paper that were then digitally colored. Overall, I enjoyed it but wish there had been other elements of the story that fit the penguin motif. (Kids Can Press, 2004)
And what did we learn? What I take away from The Princess and the Pea is that it’s never a good idea to judge people by their appearance, as they are always more than what they seem.