February 23, 2018

THE PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER (Reading Comics with Mel and Matthew #2)

Matthew Winner's and my new series "Reading Comics with Mel and Matthew" continues with Jen Wang's The Prince and the Dressmaker. This book is aimed at middle school readers. Check out our conversation below!

WARNING: This blog post contains SPOILERS. Juicy ones. So if you wish to remain spoiler-free, read the book before reading this post!

MELHi Matthew!!

I had so much fun with Clem Hetherington. Want to do it again?? I just got The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang, and I can tell from the cover that it’s going to be incredible. I know nothing about it but want to dive right in! Are you with me??

MATTHEW: Hey Mel! I would love to start another comic with you! And great choice! The little I know about this book already has me excited. It’s by Jen Wang who some will know from IRL: IN REAL LIFE. I remember reading a preview set of pages from IRL and really liking it. Now I’m hold a weighty copy of The Prince and the Dressmaker and reading the cover I can see that there is some sort of chemistry between the prince and the dressmaker shown on the cover. It doesn’t look romantic based on their body language (more like admiration or playful scheming), but I’ll be excited to see where the story goes. The silhouette that holds the frame of the book shows a third character with red hair and a long gown. I love the gold thread and scissors that dance around the image. The more I study the cover, the more I cannot help but notice that the silhouette and the prince have the same nose. Perhaps they’re related. Sister? Mother? Cousin? Cannot wait to find out. I have a feeling I’ll be racing through this one!

MELHey! So I’m about 61 pages into the book. HOLY COW, it’s amazing. I don’t know about you, but I had ZERO idea what this book was about when I saw it. The cover is so cleverly designed, giving away so much and yet so little all at the same time. I mentioned this a little in our voice-chats, but to me this book is just so hugely important. You and I have talked about transgender issues before and how they can be so poorly addressed in books. It makes sense: it’s a tough topic and with the books we tend to read (i.e. books for younger audiences), they’re often watered down and found wanting in depth.

This book is like a breath of fresh air when it comes to addressing transgender identities and different kinds of love. Our main character Frances doesn’t even blink when she finds out that the prince likes to dress in women’s clothing. And why should she? It’s the best of all worlds for her, too! She gets to do what she loves, support someone who hasn’t come out to his family, and make a new friend in the process. It’s truly a mutually beneficial arrangement. And the best part about that is that Frances doesn’t see it that way, as an “agreement.” She is just a kind and generous person by nature, so the prince’s wardrobe preferences and their giant class disparity aren’t relevant. And that’s definitely a character I want to get to know!

Okay, okay. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, so I won’t say too much more, but let me know what you’re thinking about it so far!

MATTHEW: I couldn't resist . . . I finished Chapter 3. I am just so engaged in this story and already so invested in this relationship between Frances and Prince Sebastian. I’ve been dogearing this book like crazy which is not something I NEVER do. (Seriously. I think the last time I felt this compelled to cause such passive aggressive damage to a book was Cece Bell’s EL DEAFO which, similarly, had a number of story moments I felt like I’d be referring to or holding up to others for years to come.) This book feels like it’s both of the time and also of a time. We are at a cultural turning point in regards to mass media and the LQBTQ community. Not that there isn’t a long way to go, but the fact that we’re reading a novel about a prince who is coming of age and is also experiencing such a pivotal time of self-discovery (that series of panels on page 44 is EVERYTHING!) is something that I hope we continue to see more and more of. And, barring any drastic surprises regarding what’s to come in the story, this is a book that I would absolutely hand my 5th graders. But something about Jen Wang’s choice to set this story in early era Paris just seems right to me.

And can we talk about the line work and character designs in this story? Absolutely everything in the book is working in harmony with the other story elements in order to propel this book forward. I’ll have more to say about that soon, but I’m too eager to get back to reading!

MELI just finished Chapter 6! STOP DOGEARING PAGES! I'm a Post-It note girl, myself . . .

This is one of those books where I hardly know where to start because there's so much to praise. So I guess I can't blame you for dogearing (though I can a little!). I'm SO invested in Sebastian and Frances' relationship. It's wholesome and heart-warming (ie perfect for all ages), and they both get a lot of each others' company. Though one is a prince and the other a peasant, there's no difference in class when they're together: they're both just trying to be the best versions of themselves, and they each help the other do just that. How beautiful is that? And to go back to the age range for a moment, while this book has its romantic moments (the prince is betrothed, there are scenes where Sebastian and Frances demonstrate confusion over their feelings for each other), there is nothing overtly sexual about their relationship. They're soul mates who bring out the best in each other. I just love it so much.

Speaking of overtly sexual . . . poor Sebastian. It's tough having an entire country watching to see who you'll marry when marriage is maybe the last thing on his mind. He doesn't know who HE is yet, how is he supposed to commit to someone else?? We all know what it's like to walk that fine line of wanting to be who you are and wanting to please your family, but Sebastian definitely has it rougher than most. I guess he should consider himself lucky that he has any say in his future at all, but I just can't help but feel bad for him when he's living these two very different lives.

Sexuality isn't even on his radar yet, and how can it be? Though those few scenes between him and Frances where they are clearly trying to hide feelings from each other definitely give ME all the feels. I love it! I got hardcore giggles on pages 105 and 138. Crushes are confusing!

Here's another thing I love: the outfits. I'm almost bummed that this book isn't a million times longer. Like that red dress that Sebastian wears? I want to see more of it!

You're right about the design of this book being dead-on. It's almost cinematic. We get some great moments where it feels like we're watching movie montages, and I can almost hear old-timey music in my mind as we go through the book.

I think it's very interesting that it takes until page 129 for Frances to finally break out of her own shell and get dressed up to go out with Sebastian. I do wonder why she always wears her peasant clothes when she goes out with Sebastian when he is dressed to the nines and beyond. Is that a pride thing? Does she feel like she doesn't quite belong? Is she reserving the spotlight for Sebastian's dresses? The two treat each other like equals in almost every regard, but that really stands out to me.

Okay, last thing: who is this Peter Trippley character? Do you trust him? I don't. I know he saves the two characters from a weird social situation, but there's something . . . pedantic about the way he talks. Even through his compliments I still hear some snootiness, and I genuinely worry about his overall intentions. I already know in my heart-of-hearts that Sebastian's secret is going to come out, and I have a feeling it's not going to come out the way he intends (he probably doesn't want it to ever come out), so I have this irrational fear that Peter is going to be the one who outs him. Ah, the joys of literary paranoia.

MATTHEW: Mel! I'm prying myself away from the book in order to write you and then it's right back to Frances and Lady Crystallia and Sebastian again.

First though, the dogears are a must. Post-its are so temporary, dogears, even if straightened back out, will always leave a mark that will remain. And I want to make sure I not those pages that moved me so this first time reading so that when I return to the book I can see if different parts of the story resonate with me more upon a second or third reading. Don't think of them a page-markers. Think of them as time-markers, because they'll each hold a moment in time for me forever.

And speaking of holding moments of time forever, I finished Chapter 6 as I'm writing this and I'm afraid that it's time to raise the stakes for Sebastian. And I don't mean that as a criticism of Jen Wang. Hardly. Instead, I can see from the cover fold that I'm using to mark my page that we've reached the halfway mark. Sebastian has found truth and belonging when he walks the world as Lady Crystallia. Frances and Sebastian have experienced at least two moments now (as you mentioned) where the intensity of their connection seems to confuse and arouse the both of them to a deeper feeling of love than I think either has ever felt. Sebastian is courting (at least by way of his parents) other princesses including Princess Julianna of Monaco (quite a close call there on 114, right?!) and though he seems to be doing this now to appease his parent's wishes, I don't think he'll be immune to increasing expectation that he is to be betrothed to one of these young women.

Our Sebastian is in a moment of spring awakening and the world seems alive to him. Indeed, I think Wang was very successful as making this world feel alive to us as well. But I have this overwhelming sense of "I know how this is gonna go and I almost don't want to read any further", because I feel like we're approaching that time in the plot where has to suffer. Where those things he values, whether that be his identity as Lady Crystallia, the beautiful dresses Frances creates, or Frances herself . . .  those things he values need to be threatened or, perhaps, even lost.

And I don't like that. Not one bit.

Peter Trippley is offering Frances an opportunity to see her dreams realized. What are his intentions? Why do this huge favor for Frances if, truly, she's a complete stranger to him. Is it because that's his way of courting Frances? Of drawing her away from Sebastian? Does he even know that Lady Crystallia is Sebastian, and that Sebastian is Lady Crystallia?

There is no doubt in my mind that Peter will play a part in causing the pain I know my heart is about to suffer. But all children's books contain hope. It's what sets them apart from many adult novels. And so, holding tight to that hope, I'm ending here to return to our story. Catch you in a few chapters!

MELYes, I feel like the stakes have been on a steady incline since the moment Sebastian's secret is revealed (ie the beginning of the book). And I, too, have had that sinking feeling you mentioned of being petrified that things can only go downhill. Now that I've reached Chapter 9, I can definitely say that all that fear was warranted. We see now that this ticking clock we've felt in the periphery is moving further and further into the forefront: it started with his parents trying to find him a bride, but it takes a huge leap foreword when he father has a heart attack. The weight of who he has to become (very quickly, mind you) is terrifying, and we witness a huge shift in his behavior as he accepts his predetermined role in life. Statements like the one on page 177 about how Princess Juliana would make a good queen shows that he's matured in his views about how he will serve his country.

But, of course, all these crashing realizations come to a head at the wrong time, when it would most benefit Frances. It's pretty heart-breaking, and that scene on page 175 looks like a funeral because it feels like one: the veiled face, the dark dress, they carry all the weight that words cannot. This is a dark moment, maybe even the nadir, in the story, and it's so hard to blame anyone because they're all just doing their best.

Which, sadly, brings me to where I left off. Peter (who I still don't trust) has recruited Frances to work at his new department store, and poor Sebastian has been outed. Would you say it was as gut-wrenching as you expected? It definitely was for me. The look on his face, the mixture of resignation and horror, was almost too much to bear. Even when I knew it was coming. I have no idea what his parents will do going forward, especially given the King's poor health, so I'm completely on the edge of my seat. Maybe it's because of where it leaves off, but I find I can barely even focus on Frances right now, I'm so upset about Sebastian. How will anyone make this right?

MATTHEW: I finished the book. I couldn't help myself. The thought that if Sebastian's truth came out it could literally kill his father was just too much for me to handle.

It was such strong storytelling for Jen Wang to end that series of arranged courtships with a scene that so quickly turns over from Princess Louise joking alongside her mother about being betrothed to her horse to Sebastian sincerely and with conviction telling Louise, "I'm sorry our parents are making us do this dance. You seem like a very nice person, and you deserve better than this."

We've got this beautiful contrast going on at the conclusion of this chapter that you hit on. The king's health scare is something of a reality check to Sebastian, causing him to question where his feelings should be prioritized when weighed against the responsibility he has heir to the throne. Lady Crystallia tells Frances, "If everyone finds out the prince's seamstress is also working for Lady Crystallia, they're going to figure out my secret sooner or later . . . I could be made King any time! If anything happened to my father, that's it for me. I can't take any chances."

Frances has exhibited a sort of silent strength throughout this story, always keeping in mind that she's in the presence of royalty and yet maintaining her voice as a designer and as a companion and confident to Sebastian. She is no sooner dismissed by Sebastian from fear that their being scene together will threaten the secret the prince is keeping when who should she bump into by Madame Aurelia, famed fashion designer. It was difficult to see Frances protecting Sebastian at all costs, telling Madame Aurelia that she was "no one" while we know that Frances desires so deeply to make a name in the fashion world and that this is the very woman who could make that dream happen.

But here is where I think Frances' character really shines. She leaves the prince. She could have stayed on and designed princely clothes for him. Instead she hands back the key to her room, saying "I'd rather take my chances starting over than languish in your closet forever." 

And that's precisely what she does; she starts over. When we see her at the start of Chapter 9 it's not because she was hired by Peter. Quite the contrary, actually. She went to work as a seamstress for a storefront business and, as chance would have it, her path crosses with Peter's when he comes to collect an order. She's willingly chosen to start over, to start from the bottom. In terms of progressing the story and Frances' character, this allows every success to be her own. Her gifts and craft stand untouched by her association to the prince. Honestly, I thought that made the comment from Peter regarding his dad ("Associating with him can make you very powerful as well.") to be particularly powerful because the panel is set against an image of the invitation to Sebastian's betrothal ceremony to Princess Juliana. Frances has it in her to establish herself as a voice in the fashion world and she does not need any man to open the door for her. Indeed, as we will see, Frances has a commanding voice through her dresses and it is singularly her voice. 

Finish the story and then let's talk. This theme of finding yourself, of taking ownership over your voice and your connection to others, is something to me that stands out in this story and Jen Wang allows readers to see this idea through to the story's satisfying conclusion. I was overwhelmed with emotion as the story concluded. I can't wait to talk about it with you, Mel!

MELI've finished, too!

I think you're dead-on about Frances when you say she has a "silent strength" and has to balance these two rival ideas of remembering her place in society and acting as a confidant. I've given it a lot more thought since you mentioned it, and I think that's why it's hard to remember how much is at stake for her in the grand scheme of things. She knows she has what it takes to be a professional designer, so that moment of saying "no one" carries a lot of weight. She never compromises her values, even when it would most benefit her, and the consequences of that –– not talking to Madame Aurelia when she has the chance –– are much quieter than the consequences Sebastian faces for his "transgression" (pun intended).

Speaking of Sebastian, did you realize he's the one who essentially outs himself? He mentions his own name while he's dressed as Lady Crystallia right before he passes out. I definitely didn't notice that until I reread the scene. Do you think he's become so resolved about who he has to be that this is his planned "last night" so to speak dressing as Lady Crystallia? He vaguely mentions things like running away form home, but I kind of feel like that's not ever something he'd truly consider. This feels like a last hurrah, and part of me wonders if he outs himself intentionally. It's obviously a lot to carry AND he's incredibly depressed (and drunk), so it would make sense that his subconscious lets it slip. What do you think? I think it's interesting that Prince Marcel's initial instinct is to hide Sebastian's identity and "deal with Juliana later," so I wonder what changes. He very clearly blindsides his sister (not to mention embarrasses her) in front of their entire family. Just see that panel on page 214. She looks so small. What could his motivation for that possible be? What happened in between those moments? And you know what else is interesting? We only see one of his mother's reactions, the rest are his father's: we see the father's horror, disappointment, and we even see him walk away. Very impactful given his father is sick and Sebastian is set to take his throne.

Oh my gosh, and that's only one chapter!

Okay, let's talk for a moment about the fact that poor Frances has to be the king's sounding board. I mean, it could be worse, the king could be talking to someone who doesn't know Sebastian at all and doesn't see Sebastian for who he truly is ("perfect").

Or that poor Sebastian sequesters himself at a monastery. It's all just so. So. Sad. Everyone in this book carries around so much guilt over what they perceive to be Sebastian's actions when, in reality, this is who Sebastian IS. There's no guilt to be had by anyone. Not by Frances, who helps him "hide" it. Not by his father for having a son who wears dresses. And DEFINITELY not by Sebastian for simply being who he is meant to be. And yet it's there. Guilt is felt by every single person in this book, and it prevents all of them from talking to each other and being beacons of support for each other. And in the end, it makes them all weaker people in a sense: Frances' designs, while beautiful, aren't really reflective of her style, Sebastian has sequestered himself, and the king is found falling over drunk when Frances finds him. They're all much stronger together, and it only takes 259 pages to get there and be on the same page! But it's worth every moment.

I'm going to pause there and let you take the reigns!

MATTHEWI never caught the part with Sebastian outing himself at the bar. Good eye! I think I was just so wrapped up in Lady Crystallia being so quickly taken by whatever was in that shot and by the ensuing train wreck we're left to witness. But this thing with Prince Marcel? I've definitely got a thing to say about that. I feel, and this really makes me hate him for it, like Marcel was shielding Sebastian/Crystallia at the bar because he wanted this to be his catch . . . like some sort of sick hunting trophy. If the rest of the world caught on, it wouldn't get to be Marcel's news. And isn't this such a macho signal of power to throw Sebastian before both of these royal families and declare coldly, "We found your prince." Sebastian knew this secret couldn't last forever, but here we're left to see Marcel take possession of Sebastian's secret in order to claim reign over it before the families. So awful!

That observation of guilt reoccurring is really fascinating as well. And so on the nose in this context where gender norms are challenged. But I think that's always why I responded so strongly to the ending. Being able to challenge gender norms while under the gaze of the whole town (all of the king's subjects?) showed, I think, a demonstration of acceptance, tolerance, and love on a platform where onlookers would be emboldened to follow suit. Do we find the atypical to be perverse just because it's different from what we're used to? Perhaps it's different from what we're raised to think of as "normal"? And perhaps, even, because we feel ashamed that there is a part inside each of us that we fear could be publicly judged and ridiculed ourselves? The king's act went against instincts of self-preservation and instead demonstrated something altogether selfless: the love he has for his son.

Beautiful book. Beautiful ending. And such a deep, deep joy to take time to consider this book from so many different angles.

I'll look forward to revisiting this story over and over in the years to come.

MELEw!!! Oh gosh, I really hope that wasn't Prince Marcel's motivation, to claim this moment of outing Sebastian as a "prize." Sadly, I don't see any other way of looking at it. That's horribly upsetting. And equally horrifying that Marcel gets to take control of Sebastian's moment of coming out. Poor Sebastian has zero control over any moment of his life, and this is definitely his lowest moment. Ah, but that moment when his dad steps up and yells, "Get your hands off my child." THAT is a moment. It's compounded by the fact that the king is wearing a dress, of course, but the mere fact that he says "child" is very striking. He could say "the prince" or even "son" (which I think would have a very different connotation) but the word "child" evokes a feeling of protection and casts aside any notion that the king is doing this to protect the throne. He is standing up FOR HIS CHILD. He even seems to acknowledge that there's no room for royalty in this moment when he observes that in a setting like this, "Where do kings and princes even fit in anymore?" Standing up for his son has nothing to do with the throne or the family's legacy, it's about a father and his child being on the same page and being accepting of each other. And it doesn't hurt that the king knows Frances will always be there with Sebastian to protect and love him. Being a parent is tough, but knowing you're sending your kid out into the world with an ally means everything.

Thank you so much for reading this with me, Matthew. One of the best books I've ever read!

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang published last week from First Second and is available for purchase here.

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