If you remember learning about Purim as a child and wondering why Vashti was a villain, here is the book for you — and for children now fortunate enough to enjoy a new interpretation of the feisty Persian queen. In Queen Vashti’s Comfy Pants, Leah Rachel Berkowitz and Ruth Bennett give voice to noble Esther’s predecessor, the soon-to-be ex-wife, who refuses to be bullied by a foolish king drunk on his own power. The lilting rhymed text and irreverent feminist pictures place Queen Vashti’s bold decision squarely in context. Even in ancient Persia, according to this up-to-date interpretation, not all women would surrender to male control over their lives. This Vashti is fiercely confident and ready to stand up for her rights.
Berkowitz and Bennett do not engage with older interpretations of the Purim story; instead, they write their own midrash based on the Book of Esther. This queen has her own network of female friends, depicted as a multicultural and multigenerational cast of women who do not require male permission to have a good time. When the king and his courtiers run out of amusements at their own party, they naturally assume that Vashti will appear to liven up the scene: “The king stood up and said ‘I know!/Let’s make the queen put on a show!’” They even imagine the scene as a smiling Vashti happily dancing while the men watching raise their glasses in drunken cheer.
Meanwhile, Vashti and friends are singing, dancing with one another, playing cards and reclining on velvet seats. They are thoroughly happy sharing their time and thoughts with one another. An irate king, having heard from his messenger of Vashti’s refusal to attend his party, storms into this female paradise on a wave of destruction. Vashti has nothing but contempt for him, disdaining his angry threats: “‘You must come dance,’ the monarch cried/His face burned with wounded pride.” Husband and wife face one another like mirror images, the king’s face contorted, his robed arm extending in the direction of the palace where Vashti must follow. In half-profile, she folds her arm and smiles, preparing to use her secret weapon, female solidarity. Her friends, old and young, dark and light-skinned, standing and using a wheelchair, join in protest: “We are not in the mood to dance,/for we are in our COMFY PANTS.”
Women’s clothing is not a trivial issue. Vashti and her friends feel empowered partly because of their action-ready garment, not the alluring gown pictured in the king’s fantasy. As Vashti prepares for her new life, she fills her suitcase with carefully selected items: “…her jewels/and royal crown,/and sturdy shoes,/and potted plants,/and seven pairs of comfy pants.”
Vashti’s story ends happily, as she turns the king’s rejection into liberation. She walks briskly in her comfy pants away from the castle, a strong figure with dark hair flowing hair and a broad smile on her face. She and her friends will “conquer the world” unencumbered by oppression. Young readers have a chance to imagine the backstory to Queen Esther’s courageous deeds, and to consider the different forms which female bravery can assume.
Queen Vashti’s Comfy Pants is highly recommended for both children and adults who have always wanted to hear Vashti’s side of the story. It includes the author’s “Dear Reader” letter, encouraging children to think about the courage required to be different.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.