Hello! Katje here.
It’s February already! Can you believe it? I sure can’t.
The theme I’ve chosen for February is Love, because Valentine’s Day is coming up and, well, I’m a total romantic. I even made my fiance a Valentine’s Day card out of construction paper this year. (Romantic and a bit dorky. ;))
Not all of the books I’ll be focusing on for this month’s Book of the Week posts will be love stories, per say, but love will play a large part in the story — and not always romantic love! There are so many types of love, and all are fair game.
The month’s first pick, however, definitely has romantic love as a character’s motivation. Today I’ll be talking about Dara’s Clever Trap by Liz Flanagan and illustrated by Martina Peluso.
A bit about the book: Dara’s Clever Trap is one of the stories in Barefoot’s line of books about princesses — the others are The Princess of the Springs and The Barefoot Book of Princesses. (There are other books about princesses, but these ones are part of the actual line. Searching “princess” on Barefoot’s website will bring up quite a few books, though.) It’s originally a story from Cambodia, retold by Liz Flanagan. The book is a chapter book designed for early readers.
Story Summary: The princess Dara of the Kingdom of Cambodia is a very skilled and knowledgeable woman in science, law, engineering, music, writing, and painting. When she meets Rith, a man in her father’s court who is also very skilled in engineering, she proposes a contest to see who can design the most beautiful building — a contest she easily wins, but at the end of it, she and Rith have fallen in love. They marry and design a palace to live in, which they fill with their favourite things. They spend their days working and living together, building and planning things, and soon become very busy.
Dara and Rith eventually plan to build a beautiful summer palace for her father, as thanks for all he’s done for them. What the couple doesn’t know, however, is the king’s ministers are jealous of Rith and want to get rid of them. As soon as Dara leaves town to find the special material for her father’s new palace, the ministers see their chance and steal the plans. They write “King Rith’s Palace” on the plans and show them to the king to convince him that his son-in-law is planning a coup. Believing his ministers and very angry, the king exiles Rith.
When Dara returns, her husband has been exiled. At first, she is sad, weeping in her loneliness. But she knows just being sad will not bring him back, so while she lets herself cry, she starts thinking and planning on how to bring Rith back to her. The ministers, meanwhile, are planning to ask Dara for her hand so one of them can get her riches. Dara has guessed what has happened, and it is confirmed to her when her maid Chenda tells her that while she was gone someone stole the plans for her father’s palace. One morning, each of the ministers comes to her door and asks to marry her, one right after the other. She tells them to come back later that night so they can talk about it, and then she gets her drawing board and sets to work.
Soon, Dara has used her engineering skills to build a trap for the ministers. They put the design into action and build a trap of sticky rice and mud, with a trapdoor above it. Next to the trapdoor a table was set with Dara’s most precious things — expensive jewellry, sure to catch the eyes of the ministers. When the ministers arrive, one right after the other, Dara and Chenda wait until they take a piece of jewelry and then pull the rope to the trapdoor. All three ministers are left in a trap full of mud and sticky rice all night long.
The next day, Dara ties the hands of the ministers and brings them to her father’s court to reveal the truth. She proves the ministers’ wish to marry her for her riches by revealing the jewels they stole from her the night before, and proves her husband Rith’s innocence. Dara and her father reconcile, Rith is brought back out of exile, and the three ministers are tied to elephants to be taken around the country and have their wrongs proclaimed to the world.
And everyone lived happily ever after.
Why I think it’s special and what children will get out of it: How do I love this book? Let me count the reasons…. First, we have a smart, clever female hero who doesn’t need to have her femininity dampened to show her competence. Bonus? She’s a woman of colour. Not only that, but we have a reversal of the damsel in distress trope with a princess rescuing her prince — and she uses STEM skills to make it happen!
So many girls are discouraged from pursuing STEM in so many ways, and very often the pushback I see against that also pushes back against stereotypical femininity. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I love this book because Dara is allowed to wear dresses and be a princess…a princess whose skill in engineering saves her husband from exile. A princess who defeats her husband in a competition for planning the best building before they’re even married, and it doesn’t dampen his love for her (as many stories would have happen). At no point is Dara forced to give up her competence for Rith’s ego. They see each other as equals.
This is a story that shows that not only is STEM totally a pursuit for girls, but that it doesn’t have to come at the expense of being feminine, or at the expense of love and companionship. That is such an important message that I think needs to get way more airtime. So, yes, Dara’s Clever Trap is on my shelf of absolute favourite books, and thought it’s for early independent readers, I will definitely be reading it aloud to my niece and future children much sooner.
Plus, the love Dara and Rith have for each other really leaps off the page and I think is an example of a healthy relationship where people meet each other as equals. All good messages to send to early readers — of any gender.