From the illustrator who gave us the acclaimed The Liszts and Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein comes an authorial debut rich with otherworldly delights and a strong sense of childness. With a brief narrative prologue in which our protagonist, Franca, is found creating collages from richly-illustrated magazines, we espy a floating arm tapping her on the shoulder. This touch evokes a peculiar feeling in Franca that tempts her to leave her home comforts and explore the world beyond. So begins her journey to meet The Queen in the Cave.
This is a calling that will take her towards the forest beyond her house, beyond the walls of nettles and thickets to a cave and a world that will both shock and delight her and her two younger sisters who accompany her. Does Franca have the courage to step beyond security’s veil and discover another side and possibility to her personality that she has yet to face?
In a sumptuously designed picture book, extended to a grand 64 pages, Sardà explores those memories and feelings we get as children that we cannot ignore: the innate compulsion to step out of adult control into new realms of possibilities that can only be navigated through self-will and independence. In this story, Franca and her sisters, Carmela and Tomasina, travel to a realm full of rich imaginings and wondrous secrets. For the younger sisters, this new world is often overwhelming but for Franca, it is a place that has lain deep within her and one she has finally allowed to germinate.
Readers will be enthralled and beguiled by Sardà’s Wonderland-like world where sun-masked fairies light the path to the cave whilst coiled serpents hide in branches. Great parades of insects and flying fish dwarf the sisters as they journey to meet the queen of this other realm. Past hanging bats and ghoulish giantesses, they travel until they finally arrive at the queen’s abode only to find that she bears a startling resemblance to Franca herself. This is as much a psychological journey as it is transitional.
The Queen in the Cave is an ode to Sardà’s own childhood in which she was nervous and curious about discovering that world outside: that liminal space between dependence and independence, control and freedom. The story’s odd, quirky realm will raise many questions with its voyage and return narrative but I, for one, am happy that its ambiguous meaning mirrors our own initial, trepidatious steps into the realm of youthhood and beyond. Like the very best children’s books, this is a rare treasure that carries interpretations, readings and re-readings beyond the recommended age range.