#IMWAYR: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Unfortunately, I have to miss MMGM yet again for a second week in a row, due to my own poor planning. This means two YA books in a row—speaking of which, make sure not to miss last week's YA review, which was of a super-totally-amazing graphic novel called Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden!
An important note: If you are on Blogger and you need help moving your email subscribers out of FeedBurner to another system, I just recorded a tutorial video on setting up the system that I use, Mailchimp! I will post the video on my blog in a few days, so keep an eye out!
Also, quick blog news: I have added two widgets to my blog sidebar to make my old reviews easier to find! (If you can't see the sidebar, make sure to go to the blog homepage online and then click on the three lines in the top-left.) The first widget,
Browse by Top Picks (Update [8/13/2021]: Browse by Category), has a selection of fun categories I've sorted my recommendations into (such as "Food (Because Why Not?)" or "I Wish I Could Draw Like This"). I'll be adding more categories in the coming weeks—and if you have any suggestions for some, let me know in the comments! The other widget I've added, Browse by Author, has a full list of authors who have written 2 or more books I've reviewed—just click on an author to see my reviews of their books! I hope these 2 widgets make it easier to sort through my recommendations, both recent and old!
Getting on with the review, today we have a total delight of a story: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang.
This graphic novel is technically YA (young adult) but is totally appropriate for MG (middle grade) readers.
A few months ago, I read Jen Wang's MG graphic novel Stargazing and really liked it—although it isn't quite as memorable for me now as I thought it would be at the time, I do remember it being skillfully written and enjoyable! If I'm being frank, though, I actually enjoyed The Prince and the Dressmaker way more, and I'm super-excited to share this graphic novel today! This book is set just a couple centuries ago in Paris, where one of our two protagonists, Frances, works as a seamstress in a bustling tailor shop. Frances dreams of becoming a famous designer and looks up to a ballet costume designer, Madame Aurelia, in particular, yet it doesn't seem like her dreams have much chance of coming true anytime soon. That is, until she designs a shocking dress for a debutante looking to frustrate her parents—Frances's design goes viral (well, viral in the sense of several centuries ago), and it catches the eye of the visiting Prince Sebastian, a good-natured and kind teenage boy with one teensy-tiny secret: sometimes he likes to wear dresses. Suddenly Frances is in Sebastian's employment, designing shocking (and gorgeous) dresses for him to wear out on the town as his alter ego, Lady Crystallia, giving him a chance both to avoid meeting the princesses his parents set him up with and to get to know Frances even better. But as Sebastian fears being exposed and Frances becomes frustrated hiding in his shadow, it seems like the romance beginning to blossom between them could die as fast as it started. It will take plenty of reckonings for Frances, Sebastian, and the world around them to make their relationship flourish and their dreams come true.
I have needed some lighter reads in light of the world providing us with plenty of horribleness to grapple with, and The Prince and the Dressmaker is a truly brilliant example of a light read that is really well-executed and still has emotional layers to it! I think I'll start by discussing Jen Wang's art style, which is hard for me to do, due to my utter cluelessness about art, but I will do my best. Wang illustrates this book in full color, favoring neutrals and jewel tones over bright or blinding shades—a color scheme that makes sense for a book set in cities and royal palaces from long ago. Her art style is very easy to interpret—with plenty of contrast and white backgrounds throughout, as well as clear layouts both within panels and across pages, it is easy to get swept up in the fun of this story without pausing to go, "What is that random blob over there supposed to be?" (That question comes up in some graphic novels more than you might think.) Unlike what I expected for a book like this, Wang never takes the story too seriously—there is an abundance of humor, overly exaggerated facial expressions, and characters squealing or panicking, yet I did appreciate that she is good about reeling all of that in when the story demands more emotional weight—there is no trade-off of levity for depth here.
Moving on to the characters, it really is impossible not to love both Frances and Sebastian. Besides, both being delightfully adorable (thanks to Jen Wang's excellent facial expression choices), the two of them are quite compelling as well. Frances's admiration of other designers and strong work ethic make her a compelling character who is quite easy to root for—though she starts out as a quiet seamstress, just one of many in a shop, you long for her to get her moment in the spotlight. I wish there was a bit more information about Frances's family—she is supposed to be a teenager, yet she is able to just pack her bags and move somewhere else without a single parent ever being discussed. Luckily, suspension of disbelief is easy here. Ultimately, I will say that Sebastian felt like the stronger character of the two in the story. Like Frances, Sebastian is kind toward others, without any of that snotty prince-ness you might expect. His nature doesn't make him the best match for the countless princesses his parents keep trying to get him married off to, nor does his dress-wearing alter ego. Sebastian doesn't exactly radiate confidence, so it's really fun to see him as Lady Crystallia, out on the town and making a fashion statement noticed by the whole city (though without adopting some kind of narcissism or attention-seeking behavior). Although it isn't perfectly executed, I do love this story's message about people in a romantic relationship having to work at it—despite their connection, neither Sebastian or Frances in their initial state is ready to have any kind of healthy, rewarding relationship. And I also will say that I did love Sebastian's relationship with his parents—despite their frustrating nature, they really do want the best for him, which makes certain aspects of the story feel more believable.
(Random side note: this story is not particularly #ownvoices, and, while it obviously isn't up to me to decide this, I do wonder if Sebastian adopting different pronouns or an LGBT+ identity [e.g. genderfluid] would have made sense in this story. Although even Jen Wang has said that Sebastian is likely genderqueer, it does seem a bit strange that Sebastian seems to fit into certain modern categories of gender identity/expression but never uses them. Maybe it's because labels aren't his thing, but it did kind of feel weird nonetheless that they didn't even seem to be on the table as an option. Perhaps it's possible that not labeling Sebastian makes his character relatable to a broader audience of people, with all sorts of gender identities and expressions. I honestly don't know, but I wanted to mention all this.)
The last great selling point of The Prince and the Dressmaker is that it is just total fun to read! Jen Wang has set up such a fun and rich setting—horse-drawn carriages, butlers, cocktail parties, celebrations, fireworks, fashion shows, ballets, basically everything your younger self dreamed about while reading storybooks. I did have the nagging voice in my head of "There was probably so much horrible stuff going on back then that we're not seeing," but there was just enough exploration of prejudice to make this story feel believable and to let you have fun with Sebastian and Frances. It also helps that Frances's dresses for Lady Crystallia are wonderful—they are flamboyant in the best way, and you can't help but be surprised by each one you see!
Well, that was a short paragraph, but I'm out of thoughts (probably because it took me a ridiculously long time to write this review, to the point where I had to re-read the book, and then waited so long after the re-reading of the book that I forgot all of the details a second time). (Wow, I am a mess.) Basically, here's the deal: The Prince and the Dressmaker is total fun. Here's my best comparison—if you ever read the Eloise children's books, about the wealthy six-year-old girl who ran around New York City (or Paris—that one was my favorite) causing delightful chaos, this book will feel right at home! It has a similar combo of glamour and humor, but with obviously way more depth and relevance to modern issues. If you need something fun to read (and trust me, you do), The Prince and the Dressmaker is a perfect way to lift up your spirits!
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!