The Most Wonderful Thing in the World
Written by Vivian French
Illustrated by Angela Barrett
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
Sometimes the very thing we are searching for is right before our eyes. And sometimes, if we’re fortunate, we get the opportunity to discover this truth through beautiful picture book stories like The Most Wonderful Thing in the World.
A retelling of illustrator Angela Barrett’s favorite childhood story, The Most Wonderful Thing in the World starts with a royal problem. An over-protective king and queen of a picturesque kingdom with “sky-blue water and golden bridges” must find a proper husband for their only child, Lucia. Unsure of how to find the right man, they write to “Wise Old Angelo” for advice on what to do. In response, Angelo advises them to find the man who can show them the most wonderful thing in the world. And, alas, the parade of suitors who visits the king and queen bring one bizarre item after another: “mysterious magical beasts and a piece of frozen sky,” a “mammoth tusk” and “wind machine”—“even [a] mermaid in a tank.”
In the meantime, clever Lucia finds a way to avoid the madness. Her quiet defiance enriches the storyline as do the illustrations of the city, done in soft colors and lush detail. Lucia’s parents intend on sheltering their daughter. Ironically, their decision to send her away while they choose her future husband provides Lucia the independence she needs to choose for herself.
Away from her parents’ watchful eyes, she befriends Angelo’s grandson, Salvatore, who gladly fulfills her request to show her the city, ancient and romantic—like Venice with an Edwardian twist. Through piazzas, busy markets, and “marble arches” they visit the central spaces but also the hidden gems of the city “where the grand never [think] to go.”
This middle section is my favorite part for the tone feels modern and old at the same time. The story comes alive, as if what we are reading may have actually taken place. In pictures, we see the classic architecture of the buildings juxtaposed with the fairly modern attire of the characters. While Lucia and Salvatore roam the city, the items the suitors bring, too, showcase modern technology. As a side note, I like how some of the illustrations are done in a film reel kind of lay out which may help younger readers follow along more easily.
In words, Vivian French also balances this magical space of old and new. Most powerful for me is the opening line, “Once, in the time of your grandmother’s grandmother.” While fairy tales tend to take place in a time and place centuries old, often foreign and unreal, French’s language gives readers the feeling this tale might be true—or at least the possibility of being real, like it’s just within our reach. After all, as French reminds us, “[Our] grandmother’s grandmother would remember it.”
In the end, it’s Salvatore who reveals the most wonderful thing in the world to the king and queen who realize the answer they’ve been searching for has been in plain view all along. Married, Salvatore and Lucia gracefully rule their kingdom with a deep love for their people. And while the historical details of the story are debatable, one fact is certain: love is the most wonderful thing in the world.
- Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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