Jessie Burton’s THE RESTLESS GIRLS (Bloomsbury, 160 pp., $19.99; ages 8 to 12), illustrated by Angela Barrett, takes another favorite story of mine, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and weaves a story of female empowerment, agency and sisterhood. In the start of this tale, the 12 daughters of the king and queen of Kalia live an idyllic life. Each girl possesses the support and encouragement to explore her divergent interests and pursuits (including painting, botany, aviation, mathematics, music, veterinary science). When their mother dies following a tragic crash in her beloved racecar, the king goes mad with grief.
He blocks the sunlight from the windows, and music from the halls, and, horribly, locks the girls in a windowless room where they must spend all of their days. For their safety, he insists. But this is a fairy tale, after all, and we are ready for the reversal. A painting hides a secret door, which leads to a castle built in a tree, complete with a peacock in a waistcoat and an animal jazz band and a lioness acting as both gracious hostess and enigmatic wizard. The discovery of this secret world makes their lives in the grief-shrouded castle bearable, but the eldest, Frida, knows that it can’t last forever.
The ways in which Burton diverges from the source text are both satisfying and unexpected — and I won’t tell you what they are, for that would be a terrible spoiler. What I will say is this: “The Restless Girls” is one of the prettiest books I’ve seen in a long time. Barrett’s artwork is exquisite, and provides another layer to the story that is not explicitly explored in the text (the girls and their mother are all depicted as black and biracial, and as suffering under the increasing irrationality and restrictions of the white, mad king; the royal advisers and visiting princes represent a wide range of racial backgrounds).
Despite this beauty, the narration, while maintaining a controlled, nimble and energetic tone in the beginning and again in the end, alas, becomes overwrought and diffuse in the middle. This is a danger for fairy tale retellings, generally, and why so many of them fail. The form requires taut, precise storytelling; spongy over-explanations do not suit it. It is disappointing that Burton succumbs to this, given the sly prose she offers at the story’s outset. Still, in spite of this miscalculation I enjoyed the book, and I hope Burton, who is an actress and the author of novels for adults including “The Muse,” will be offering even more for children in the future.