With writer and illustrator both double major prizewinners, this magical fantasy story set somewhere in the middle ages promises much. And indeed, Dicamillo does come up with a strikingly original story and Blackall’s delicate drawings, surrounded by immaculately illustrated borders, ably maintain the fairy tale mood throughout. So how to assess a story so out of time with young readers’ experiences of the world today?
There are darker moments involving bandits, prison cells, murder and war. But Beatryce, the young heroine of the main action, is impervious to threats and her happy outcome is a foregone conclusion. She is accompanied on her journey from the monastery giving her shelter by Answelica, a goat given to regular butting and biting. There is also Brother Edik, a monk one of whose eyes permanently wanders out of focus – a detail much repeated. Their destination is a king who has done wrong, with Beatryce following a prophecy promising all would eventually be well.
Beautifully produced, with chapters opening with a single illuminated letter, this book is a pleasure to handle. As a story it will surely please some but others may find it a bit tame. The actual writing could seem arch to those not immediately carried away by it and Beatryce herself strains credulity by being so innocently perfect. The goat is earthier, smelling high and in a state of permanent aggression, but she is given a very easy ride by those she torments, as if goat bites don’t really hurt either at the time or afterwards. Dicamillo has written that this tale had been lodged in her imagination for over ten years, and Blackall has attested how much it came to mean to her while she was illustrating it. Their views should be taken seriously; whether the eventual story quite bears the weight of so much personal commitment is another matter.