Basic Plot Summary: A vain emperor who values fine clothes is tricked by two men who promise him the most beautiful and amazing suit which will appear invisible to anyone who is stupid or unfit for their position. As the two men weave and sew the cloth for the suit, the emperor’s ministers visit to check on their progress and, although they can’t see anything, they report favorably back to the emperor, afraid of being exposed as unfit for their posts. When the suit is finished, the men ‘dress’ the emperor in the new suit and he parades through town in it but no one says anything for fear of looking stupid. Then a young boy points out that the emperor is naked and everyone, including the emperor, realizes it’s true.
Hans Christian Andersen first published this story in 1837, based on a German translation of a Spanish tale from the 14th century, in which the suit could only be seen by true sons of their presumed father. The story goes that the addition of the child at the end who finally calls the emperor out for his nakedness was a change that Mr. Andersen made at the very last minute, only just before publication. I have always loved this story and feel like it’s extra relevant now in the age of social media. It’s been adapted for television several times and is frequently used allegorically by documentary filmmakers and authors.
The Emperor’s New Clothes – As a huge fan of Virginia Lee Burton, I was really excited to see that she had illustrated a version of this story. This book is part of the Folk Tale Classics series, which are mostly illustrated by Paul Galdone. Ms. Burton’s artwork is very classical, in her typical style, with delicate and intricate drawings of the emperor, his ministers and the con men who pulled one over on all of them. The emperor’s throne and mirror look very similar, which seems to indicate that his opinion of himself is at the core of who he is as a person and a ruler. Especially if you love classic art, this one is fantastic. (Houghton Mifflin, 1949)
The Emperor’s New Clothes – Author Marcus Sedgwick tells the story in loose rhyming couplets (that may be frustrating to sticklers for rhyme or meter, since both of these elements are a little fluid here) and populates it with animal characters. The emperor is a lion, the tricksters are weasels (which seems appropriate) and the emperor’s advisors are a tortoise and hare. Alison Jay uses Alkyd paints and a crackle varnish glaze to create the illustrations, which have an aged and somewhat vintage feel to them. I imagine some people may find it more comfortable for this story to feature animal characters, since there’s nudity involved. It’s a fun version with really distinctive artwork. (Chronicle Books, 2004)
The Emperor’s New Clothes – This simplified version of the story is shorter and easier to read, making it a good choice for younger kids. Joy Cowley edited the story text, which was translated from the original Korean publication. The illustrations, from Gyeong-mi Yim, are whimsical and a little surreal, with oddly proportioned people and animals flying in the air. They pair well with the simple story, though, to create the full picture of what’s going on. I wouldn’t call it my favorite version, but I did enjoy it. (Big & Small, 2015)
The Emperor’s New Clothes – The story in this version is set in China and author/illustrator Demi makes that very meaningful in her artwork, which she explains in a note at the back of the book. Using the concept of ch’i, she surrounds the emperor with multiple symbols of purity and virtue, yet it takes the innocence and honesty of a child to teach him the wisdom he needs to truly learn these virtues. The paint and ink artwork is bright and colorful, featuring several pages that fold out to show even more, and I had a greater appreciation for the illustrations after reading the note about the symbolism in them. It’s a great version of the story that anyone could enjoy. (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2000)
King Long Shanks – The characters in this very different version are all frogs and you would think that would be the biggest difference. But there’s another element that author Jane Yolen adds into this story that really sets it apart for me. Whereas most versions make the suit invisible to those who are unintelligent or unfit for office, this suit’s visibility is a measure of loyalty to the king. At the end, when everyone realizes that he’s naked, his wife shows her true loyalty by tearing off a piece of her own dress to cover him. Victoria Chess used watercolors, pencils, inks and pens to create the whimsical world of these frogs and gives them real personality. (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1998)
And what did we learn? What I take away from The Emperor’s New Clothes is that it shows your courage and intelligence to speak the truth when everyone around you is blindly following the crowd.