Esther Didn’t Dream of Being Queen begins as the answer to an implicit question: “Once upon a time … No, I’m not Cinderella … and my story is not a fairy tale.” Acknowledging that many young readers will associate Esther with a fairy-tale heroine rescued from obscurity by a prince, the author establishes at the outset that the similarity is superficial. While a king does elevate Esther because of her beauty, Esther understands that her unanticipated new role gives her an opportunity and an obligation to save her people. This quietly understated picture book tells Esther’s story from her own perspective as a young woman who does not control her circumstances but who nonetheless succeeds in saving her people.
The orphan who lives under her cousin Mordecai’s guardianship describes her life as idyllic, full of simple pleasures like gardening and friendship. Valentina Belloni’s pictures portray her as a child, one whose life is about to change when she learns that the king, an arbitrary tyrant, has dismissed his wife because she disobeyed his orders. Allison Ofanansky’s text does not imply that Esther notes the injustice of this act, only that Esther is disgusted and decides that she does not intend to participate in the “royal beauty contest” to find a replacement for the disgraced queen. Her own feelings are irrelevant; a picture of her dragged away in a carriage emphasizes that she is alone and helpless. In the women’s quarters, Esther stands partially concealed behind a column while others eagerly participate in “getting primped, prettied, and perfumed.” Esther is different, but the very quality that alienates her in her surroundings designates her as ready to assume a different role.
Remaining hidden is the key to Esther’s survival, since the king cannot know that she is Jewish. Paradoxically, the more she tries to recede into the background, the more evident it becomes that she will play a central part in a dangerous drama. An evil advisor to the king, Haman, is preparing to punish the kingdom’s Jews for their refusal to abandon their religious practices. Esther’s own spirituality is an intrinsic part of her courage. A picture of her blessing Shabbat candles shows her covering her eyes, deep in prayer. The light blue background contrasts with the brightness of the flames and with Esther’s dark skin and flowing black hair. Belloni’s use of earth and jewel tones, arabesque patterns, and Persian architecture highlight the story’s setting, poetically and accurately described as an empire extending “from India to Ethiopia.”
In some children’s versions of the Purim story, King Ahasuerus is a buffoon, in others, a harsh dictator. Here he first presents as threatening but later appears weakened. When Esther learns that the other women summoned to court would be kept as “servants,” she insists that they be freed; the king accedes, lowering his eyes submissively. There is an explanation for Esther’s newfound strength: “I didn’t have a fairy godmother to wave a magic wand and solve my problems.” Although she is terrified, she devises a plan to entertain her husband and then to reveal both her hidden identity and the truth of Haman’s plan. Mordecai triumphantly holds up the document proving that Esther’s plan has been a success. Just as surprising to Esther is her own transformation: “I’d outwitted the bully … I never imagined I would do something like this.” Ultimately, readers longing for a happily resolved fairy tale will not be disappointed. There is a poor girl who marries a king, becomes queen, and overcomes an evil counsellor. In Ofanansky’s accessible text and Belloni’s delicately expressive pictures, Esther’s gradually awakened self-confidence, rooted in faith, is at the root of her transformation.
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.