Queen Vashti’s Com­fy Pants

Leah Rachel Berkowitz, Ruth Ben­nett (illus.)

  • Review
By – February 22, 2021

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 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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