The deliciously evil sorceress Lady Lamorna has just had a divine inspiration for a new gown: "Skulls," she says. "Definitely skulls. Rows and rows of dear little skulls, sewn all along the hem." She sighs with pleasure as she imagines "the clitter-clatter of bone on her cold stone floors," not to mention the embroidered motif of spiders, and perhaps even some poison ivy. She orders the dress from the very best seamstresses, only to discover too late that her treasure chest is utterly, entirely empty. One does not order a dress from the Ancient Crones and refuse to pay - not if one values one's life. How to get a lot of gold in a short time with very little effort?
She hatches a plot involving princes, frogs and blackmail. It seems simple, but she doesn't count on a "Trueheart" girl named Gracie Gillypot or her astonishingly lovely black-hearted step sister or a sly bat named Marlon or a silly, vengeful troll with a penchant for getting his head attached backwards or a stubborn, adventurous prince who is determined to get his frog-shaped brother turned human again. The Lady Larmorna's plan is turned upside down, but if Gracie's wicked stepsister has her way, it will wreak twice as much havoc. Gracie can only hope that her heart is as brave as it is true, or she and all the adjoining kingdoms are in for a heap of trouble.
This delightful fantasy for middle grade readers takes traditional fairytale tropes (princes, mistreated stepdaughters, evil sorceresses, frog princes) and gives them a fresh new, very funny twist. It has fun, creepy elements but is not at all scary - Lady Lamorna reminded me a bit of Yzma (one of my favorite villains) in Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, and Gubble, her mistreated troll, possesses unexpected (and humorous) depths. Gracie is a feisty heroine, and Prince Marcus is tough and smart - and not at all snooty. And the bats are simply charming. This is a fairly simple, straightforward read that would appeal to children with a taste for action, adventure and the humorously ghoulish. It would make a great read-aloud, and I have put it on my list to read to my own children, who are sure to enjoy the humor and excitement.
Here is an interesting interview with the author at Cynthia's blog, Cynsations, and another at Little Willow's blog, Slayground.
The Robe of Skulls by Vivian French (Candlewick Press, 2007)
Also reviewed at:
Adventures in Reading: "A cute story with just enough fright to keep it interesting (but not too scary), I am sure it will be an endearing read for children. However, I did feel it lacked the complexity that makes children’s books also attractive to adults."
Back to Books: "This book was a whole lot of fun. Written in a not too serious style, there were laughs aplenty and pure glee in the reading."
Charlotte's Library: "This is a funny and fast-paced book, and the black and white illustrations are an amusing and engaging addition to the text."
Kiss the Book: "While the cover of the book looks evil and dark, it is really light-hearted and reads more like fairytale."