Esther Didn’t Dream of Being Queen

Alli­son Ofanan­sky, Valenti­na Bel­loni (illus.)

  • Review
By – February 22, 2021

Esther Didn’t Dream of Being Queen begins as the answer to an implic­it ques­tion: Once upon a time … No, I’m not Cin­derel­la … and my sto­ry is not a fairy tale.” Acknowl­edg­ing that many young read­ers will asso­ciate Esther with a fairy-tale hero­ine res­cued from obscu­ri­ty by a prince, the author estab­lish­es at the out­set that the sim­i­lar­i­ty is super­fi­cial. While a king does ele­vate Esther because of her beau­ty, Esther under­stands that her unan­tic­i­pat­ed new role gives her an oppor­tu­ni­ty and an oblig­a­tion to save her peo­ple. This qui­et­ly under­stat­ed pic­ture book tells Esther’s sto­ry from her own per­spec­tive as a young woman who does not con­trol her cir­cum­stances but who nonethe­less suc­ceeds in sav­ing her people.

The orphan who lives under her cousin Mordecai’s guardian­ship describes her life as idyl­lic, full of sim­ple plea­sures like gar­den­ing and friend­ship. Valenti­na Belloni’s pic­tures por­tray her as a child, one whose life is about to change when she learns that the king, an arbi­trary tyrant, has dis­missed his wife because she dis­obeyed his orders. Alli­son Ofanansky’s text does not imply that Esther notes the injus­tice of this act, only that Esther is dis­gust­ed and decides that she does not intend to par­tic­i­pate in the roy­al beau­ty con­test” to find a replace­ment for the dis­graced queen. Her own feel­ings are irrel­e­vant; a pic­ture of her dragged away in a car­riage empha­sizes that she is alone and help­less. In the women’s quar­ters, Esther stands par­tial­ly con­cealed behind a col­umn while oth­ers eager­ly par­tic­i­pate in get­ting primped, pret­tied, and per­fumed.” Esther is dif­fer­ent, but the very qual­i­ty that alien­ates her in her sur­round­ings des­ig­nates her as ready to assume a dif­fer­ent role.

Remain­ing hid­den is the key to Esther’s sur­vival, since the king can­not know that she is Jew­ish. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, the more she tries to recede into the back­ground, the more evi­dent it becomes that she will play a cen­tral part in a dan­ger­ous dra­ma. An evil advi­sor to the king, Haman, is prepar­ing to pun­ish the kingdom’s Jews for their refusal to aban­don their reli­gious prac­tices. Esther’s own spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is an intrin­sic part of her courage. A pic­ture of her bless­ing Shab­bat can­dles shows her cov­er­ing her eyes, deep in prayer. The light blue back­ground con­trasts with the bright­ness of the flames and with Esther’s dark skin and flow­ing black hair. Belloni’s use of earth and jew­el tones, arabesque pat­terns, and Per­sian archi­tec­ture high­light the story’s set­ting, poet­i­cal­ly and accu­rate­ly described as an empire extend­ing from India to Ethiopia.”

In some children’s ver­sions of the Purim sto­ry, King Aha­suerus is a buf­foon, in oth­ers, a harsh dic­ta­tor. Here he first presents as threat­en­ing but lat­er appears weak­ened. When Esther learns that the oth­er women sum­moned to court would be kept as ser­vants,” she insists that they be freed; the king accedes, low­er­ing his eyes sub­mis­sive­ly. There is an expla­na­tion for Esther’s new­found strength: I didn’t have a fairy god­moth­er to wave a mag­ic wand and solve my prob­lems.” Although she is ter­ri­fied, she devis­es a plan to enter­tain her hus­band and then to reveal both her hid­den iden­ti­ty and the truth of Haman’s plan. Morde­cai tri­umphant­ly holds up the doc­u­ment prov­ing that Esther’s plan has been a suc­cess. Just as sur­pris­ing to Esther is her own trans­for­ma­tion: I’d out­wit­ted the bul­ly … I nev­er imag­ined I would do some­thing like this.” Ulti­mate­ly, read­ers long­ing for a hap­pi­ly resolved fairy tale will not be dis­ap­point­ed. There is a poor girl who mar­ries a king, becomes queen, and over­comes an evil coun­sel­lor. In Ofanansky’s acces­si­ble text and Belloni’s del­i­cate­ly expres­sive pic­tures, Esther’s grad­u­al­ly awak­ened self-con­fi­dence, root­ed in faith, is at the root of her transformation.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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