Chloe’s Secret Princess Club may be about three girls who want to become princesses, but at heart, this book is really about the fun of imaginative play and friendship.
With plenty of fantasy books about, one can only be glad to find a story set so clearly within the real world of everyday family situations, and where the young characters have ordinary hopes and childish aspirations.
Also - and a personal response here – I was rather pleased to discover the book was not in a diary format, but presented in fourteen chapters with a few essential lists. The book very much reminded of Beverley Cleary’s Ramona stories, where the focus is all about the central character learning to cope with the smaller bumps of everyday life.
At first, dreamyhead Chloe Higgins keeps her Princess plans to herself. Then, when she sees that the school store-cupboard door is unlocked, she can’t help peeping inside, just in case it is a Portal to Another World and so ends up sticking her bewigged head out of the window, asking for help. Chloe is teased as “Rapunzel” but the incident leads to Chloe and two other girls forming a very Secret Club as they all have a secret wish to become princesses: princesses of the kind and graceful variety, not of the obnoxious, fame-seeking sort. Having had a daughter who loved dressing up, I felt this girlish longing was very well and positively handled within the writing.
After all,it's not an unreasonable wish because Chloe’s mum has definitely told her that “you can be anything you want to be if you believe in it and work hard” - although Mum was talking about Chloe concentrating on Mental Maths at the time!
The author Emma Barnes has created an attractive trio of characters: introducing impulsive, freckle-faced Chloe, shy Aisha, her long-time best friend, and over-achieving Eliza. She demonstrates the complexity of the modern child’s life too. Meeting up after school is not a simple task: during the week, Chloe has after-school swimming and baking, Aisha goes to classes at the mosque, and Eliza has lessons in trumpet, tap-dancing and karate as well as her Friday family supper. The easy culture mix familiar to an urban child of today is a particular strength of Emma Barnes' storytelling.
The three girls do manage to get together for their “Secret Princess Club” after-school meetings and activities in each others houses, where they enjoy creating special rules and secret handshakes as well as writing everything down in their official unicorn notebook, which eventually leads to a serious misunderstanding.
As the chapters progress, the girls try to learn the skills of being princesses, within their available context. Their dance tuition comes via a DVD of ballroom lessons, their beautiful outfits are clothes and scarves from Chloe’s mother’s wardrobe, and their rescuing of lost kittens involves taking a rather elderly cat back up the street to its neighbour. Plans rarely go quite as the girls imagine but although the adults who are around in the background of the story are sometimes upset they are usually kindly, in a busy working way. The Secret Club’s biggest worry is that Chloe’s twin brother, snooping Arthur and his best friend Mikhail will spread their secret back at school.
Although the “Princesses”- also know as Clorinda, Araminta and Elisabetta - are playing their roles and living their challenges seriously, one senses they know the limits of their game. The book is not about big time riches or fame and most of the dressing-up involved is creative rather than hugely materialistic. The big argument, when it arrives, grows from a visit by Egyptian history experts to the school, and the three girls learning about the “Princess” Cleopatra. Despite the following arguments and anguish (and a lonely bath in asses milk) the three princesses learn more about each others real-life hopes and dreams and the need to be kinder to each other.
“Most of all we have stuck together and had fun!”
It’s worth noting that the back of this book contains a character-linked personality quiz, a jam tart recipe and suggestions for creating you own clubs, as well as a welcome stress on the fact that a club can be about whatever a child is interested in and not necessarily princesses: a well-made point! I'm wondering if there will be another kind of Chloe Club or a return of the Princesses Club in a further book.
The Secret Princess Club has an appealing real-life charm and offers an amusing and comforting story, whether as a bedtime book for a young reader or shared on the sofa with a grown-up, possibly stirring tales of their own childhood games.
As Chloe’s mother says: “A bit of imagination is a wonderful thing.”
And there is a hamster.
And a frog.
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