~~4.5 Stars for Story~~
I wholeheartedly recommend PRINCESS SOPHIA'S GIFTS. This lovely picture story book will cheer the hearts of its readers, especially the hearts of the parents, siblings, and loved ones of those with disabilities--as well as disabled children and adults themselves.
An older, rawer tradition of fairy tales included acts that brought great harm and injuries to its heroines/heroes--such as the Armless Maiden or the sightless wandering Prince or the comatose Beauty or the Beast Prince. But often, in tales, there are magical restorations of the lost body parts or healing of the curses.
This tale set in a happy fairy-tale kingdom depicts a lovely ruling family of which Princess Sophia is the youngest and most cheerful of all. We move from the happy status quo to tragedy, and then to a spiritual encounter and its consequences, and then to a kingdom-wide quest. Lastly, as in so many classic tales, we reach the final realization, the wisdom, the "moral." The story's weight comes from the author who speaks from a place of personal experience: Diane Hovey's own child went through the suffering that little Princess Sophia did, and like the fictional princess, came out of her choking incident with disabilities that could not suppress her natural exuberance and beauty.
To be fully honest, this is not a perfect telling: The one very obvious flaw in how the tale is told--and the reason why this is not a double-five-star review, but a 1/2 star is taken away from the story--is that once Princess Sophia is, like other fairy story princesses, gifted in special ways, we do not see these special attributes/gifts used during the quest. In order to understand the purpose of the spiritual gifting, we need to see the Princess interact with those who encounter her as she travels. That would then be punctuated by the meeting with the sage...who brings the climactic epiphany forth.
The artwork, though, gets a full five stars. I've followed the art of Sara Butcher for a couple years now (and became so enamored of it that I commissioned a piece of watercolor art from her two years ago), and I can testify that her ability to capture spirituality in a fantasy setting is brilliant and utterly captivating. There is grace. There is illumination that seems magical and filled with cheer. There is gorgeousness in the depiction of women with flowing hair.
You can see images of some of the book's illustrations--a bit larger than here--at Sara's site.
I very much appreciate how Sara incorporates different ethnic types in the tale--not just the usual Northern Euro types we have seen over and over; you know, those illustrations of fantasy tales in picture books we grew up reading. Princess Sophia is fair and flaxen-haired as a young child, but we see all colors of hair, and we see one lovely figure in Native American appearance and garb, another in African appearance and garb, another with Indian (as in India) garb and darker hair, another with mahogany-red hair who reminds me of lovely Irish maidens of myth. The variety adds an accessbility to all manner of children, and I like that.
The final piece of art in the book is a strong statement of a different sort of happy ending. I won't give it away, but it could make a powerful poster for certain children in certain circumstances. Happy endings take unexpected forms in PRINCESS SOPHIA'S GIFTS.
If you have a disabled child--especially a girl--in your family, you really should get this book. If you love warm-hearted stories and beautiful artwork, you should get this book. Christmas is nearing, and this would be a terrific addition to any child's library.