by Sam Juliano
Duncan Tonatiuh’s emotionally enthralling The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes is quite simply one of the most staggeringly beautiful picture books of the year, and to date this acclaimed author-artist’s masterpiece. Yet, because the competition for Caldecott acknowledgement is so crowded in a year with multiple treasures this exquisite work seems to be lurking rather than making a serious intrusion on the various on-line prediction round-ups as the date of the American Library Association’s Youth Media Award announcements is now as of this writing only one week away. No discussion of the year’s most notable pictorial achievements, however, can possibly exclude this magisterial Mexican folktale with a tragic denouement. The story arc persuasively recalls narrative elements from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, and the heroic subtext bears similarities to stories dating back to ancient Egypt and the Bible. But Tonatiuh’s melancholic transcription is pointedly based on an Aztec legend of the two volcanoes -Iztaccihautl and Popocatepetl which are located about forty miles southeast of Mexico City, previously the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. In an afterward Tonatiuh relates that the beauty of these mountains left its mark on both the Aztecs and those who lived nearby over the succeeding generations. It “inspired a number of storytellers, poets, painters and photographers” says Tonatiuh, who adds “others have created pieces of art to honor the magnificent mountains.” The author notes at the outset that the latter of the two remains an active volcano to the present date, and a 2013 mild eruption has been recorded.
After deep blue end papers featuring star configurations that evoke Aztec culture and a title page of a singing bird that compellingly recalls the front cover of the sumptuous 1994 Caldecott Honor book Raven by Gerald McDermott, minus the multicolored adornment that Tonatiuh chooses to bring in piecemeal through his epic narrative, we are introduced to a beautiful poetry-spouting flor y canto princess named Izta. Tonatiuh again employs his patented puppet-like oval depictions of his characters with pronounced eyes and ears, and his minimalist decor which in this canvas is a line of corn stalks growing in the milpas. Suitors come from far and wide to make their pitch for the hand of the princess in marriage telling her the same promise that she would never have to spend time in the fields again. Izta of course wanted no such thing, and repeatedly spurned their offers. Expensive gifts likewise did nothing for her. A short time later a warrior named Popoca tells her that although he hasn’t any riches he would give her undying love, standing by her side through any crisis (think of the poor tailor Motel who impresses Tevye’s oldest daughter Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof with his simple humility to win her hand) as long as the Sun God rises and the mockingbird sings. Recognizing Popoca as a model of sincerity, Izta falls in love with him. The setting sun tapestry is an atmospheric gem.
The emperor, though, would not grant his daughter clearance to marry Popoca until he completed a task a la Jason and the Argonauts. He needed to defeat the dreaded Jaguar Claw, whom they had been fighting for years. The Emperor knew that Popoca was the bravest warrior in the kingdom, and he dispatched him and his small regiment to battle. At first Popoca and his men were defeated and close to ruination, but the thought of returning to Izta inspired him to rally his troops, and their efficient use of their shields and wooden spears brought them victory. Tonatieh’s exquisite depiction of the enemy wearing tiger costumes provides a creative distinction for the youngest readers. Faced with defeat Jaguar Claw hatches a diabolical plan to steal from Popoca what he loves most in the world and he enlists the help of an Aztec Judas, bribing him with a necklace. In return the disloyal messenger must tell Izta that Popoca has been killed, and offer her a potion, octli, that would soothe her grief. This plot turn evokes the false letter sent to Romeo after Juliet ingests a potion that will induce a deep sleep that simulates death. The messenger arrived and conveyed the false news to the princess that Popoca and his men fought valiantly but were killed. Tonatiuh’s harrowing description of the tragedy’s fateful step is a metaphorical jewel: I know your heart is shattered as if it were made of obsidian glass. The horizontal canvas of Izta lying down on her petlatl as she lets go of the potion tumbler brings on flashes of Snow White and the poisonous green apple and is simultaneously beautiful and heart wrenching. A victory procession documented in a burst or ornamental color depicts the winners heading back to convey the great news to the Emperor. Popoca is shattered when the Emperor tells him what happened and the warrior tries to awaken the lifeless princess.
Popoca, in confident denial carries her out into the cool air and the field, convinced this will revive her. He carries her up to the top of a mountain, lays her on a flower bed but she still lies comatose. Soon it begins to snow. Though she still doesn’t stir Popoca jkeeps his word and sits vigil even through the snowstorm as does the omnipresent bird soaring above. Tonatieh’s white tapestry may well be the most ravishing in the book, and an arresting example of his extraordinary digital collage work throughout The Princess and the Warrior.
Finally in an admirable uncompromising and powerfully written finale, Tonatieh evokes For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo with a doleful conclusion based on long standing legend:
In time, where once there was a princess with her true love by her side, two volcanoes emerged. One is known as Iztaccihuatl, or sleeping woman. The other one is known as Popocatepetl, or smoky mountain. Iztaccihuatl continues to sleep. But Popocateptl spews ashes and smoke from time to time, as if attempting to wake his sleeping princess.
The sublime red and light green borders that frame the excellent afterword alluded to earlier and a terrific glossary translating the Nahuatl language that Popoca and Izta would have spoken. A comprehensive bibliography is also offered. The inside cover is a striking facsimile of the sunset scene exhibited halfway through the book with Izta on the front and Popoca on the back panel. The dust jacket cover is a kaleidoscopic treasure with the titles and the square border in gold. The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes is a ravishing treat for children, their teachers and picture book lovers and to it’s credit it doesn’t create false happiness from the disconsolate ending. In any case it goes without saying the Caldecott committee should be paying close scrutiny to this lovely work.
Note: This is the fifty-third entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 50 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two from the days before that date.