There are no Brave Irene costumes for sale at the Disney store. There are no little girls dressed in a hodgepodge of old drab winter clothes carrying around large cardbox boxes and exclaiming, "I'm Brave Irene!" In an era where pretty in pink trumps a bookworm, there's little chance that young girls will spend their pretend time imagining they're Brave Irene.
That's because the story of Brave Irene focuses on what this brave little girl does, and not on how she looks. Written and illustrated by William Steig (he of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a childhood favorite of mine), the adventurous story of Brave Irene is one of fortitude and determination and independence.
Brave Irene is a bit of a fairytale, in that it thrusts its young main character into a precarious situation, alone. Irene Bobbin, whose mother is a dressmaker, learns that her mother is too ill to deliver the beautiful gown she's just sewn for the duchess to wear to a ball that night.
Undeterred, Irene resolves to deliver the gown to the duchess by herself while her sick mother stays home in bed. So out into the freezing winter landscape goes Irene, clutching the package containing the exquisite gown.
The journey is not easy. Snowflakes are falling. It is cold. A fierce wind blows the dress right out of the package. Clutching the now empty box, Irene tumbles and falls, twisting her ankle. The weather worsens. Yet the strong willed Irene trudges on through the deepening snow. Finally, as night falls, a weary Irene sees the palace in the distance, its lights all aglow, the ball about to begin. Irene knows she has almost made it but how will she explain the missing gown, made wayward by the angry wind? But she has not time to think before she falls off a little cliff and gets stuck once more in the snow.
The journey seems like a miserable failure, a tale gone horribly wrong but then plucky Irene manages to free herself from the snowbank! Using the box as a sled, she slides down the snow covered hill, the wind chasing her, and arrives at the palace doorstep, without the gown, but with herself intact. Irene frets about how she will explain the missing gown to the duchess. Such bad news to break... and then, there pinned to a nearby tree by the wind, Irene spies the missing ball gown.
She is warmly welcomed by an appreciative and incredulous duchess and her cheering servants. Irene tells her tale and then explains that she must get back to her sick mother at once. No, says the duchess, stay here, stay warm and have a nice supper and we will bring you back by sleigh the next morning.
The duchess and her guests go on to have a fabulous ball, with Irene invited to join them as a special guest. The folowing morning, they drive Irene back home by horse drawn sleigh and plop her into the waiting arms of her very worried mother.
Along with gifts of candy and cake, is a note from the duchess, saying that Irene is a brave and loving person.
So go read Brave Irene to your children. I can tell you that through the entire story, I did not really focus on what it was Irene was wearing (oh, a scarf, a coat, tights, boots, a skirt in the drab, practical style of a frontier girl, say) but I can tell you all the things that Irene did.
You can discuss the story of Brave Irene with your children. Point out the many times it seemed as if Irene might have just given up but didn't. Point out some of the words your young kids might not know, amusing words such as "yodeled" and what the author meant when he wrote, "...the wind yodeled." There are rich vocabularly words in Brave Irene - pick them out and have fun with it. Discuss how Irene might have felt being alone in the snow. Explain to your children what it means to set a goal. What were Irene's goals? You can even dig further and explore class differences (Irene and her dressmaker mom versus the duchess and the upper class) in history.
Irene Bobbin is more of a heroine to me than any Disney princess (ok, well, I do like Belle and her love of books). Those princesses may have their pink gowns, but Irene wears bravery like royalty.
Let's celebrate more of what our children do, and not what they wear or how they look.
I was given the CD/book set Brave Irene to review. I thought I might use this as an opportunity to promote a book with a valuable message particularly to girls in this era of gender stereotyping. As we'd already had the book in our library, and we'd once rented the audio CD, this new CD/book set will be donated to our school library. The audio CD is performed by the inimitable Meryl Streep, whose interpretation of this book will have your children absolutely mesmerized.