Queen Elizabeth II: A Little Golden Book Biography – written by Jen Arena, illustrated by Monique Dong
Golden Books, 2022
I’m a real Golden Book fans, if not exactly a Golden Books completist. I certainly don’t buy every new one, even every new biography, that is released, but if space on my shelves permitted, I might (I’ve written about some of my collection here and here). With recent titles devoted to such eclectic subjects as Betty White, Anthony Fauci, and Dolly Parton, it seems the selections are targeted as much to adults as to children. That’s a legitimate choice, and nostalgia is certainly part of the Golden Books brand. (If you haven’t read Leonard Marcus’s history of the series, it’s essential.) Even before the sad loss of Queen Elizabeth on September 8 of this year, I had been interested in this new volume, which certainly holds interest for both adults and children.
Golden Books are short. The facts contained about any subject in each one are, by definition, limited. Queen Elizabeth II, by Jen Arena with illustrations by Monique Dong, is fascinating partly because of those choices. The book opens with a picture of Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, skipping on a path accompanied by a couple of corgis. The image matches the text for compactness, providing key information both visually and in words. “She was just like any kid, except for one thing – Elizabeth was a princess.” The obvious appeal of this idea to young readers has a fairy-tale aspect. Arena offers several examples of how alike, and yet different, Elizabeth is to the person holding this book in her hands. She likes to play with toy horses. She is shy, but also organized. Her early home isn’t a palace, but it does have twenty-five bedrooms. She is close to her father, and is pictured with him next to his desk at work, but soon she has moved into Buckingham Palace. Perhaps now the differences outweigh the similarities.
In a picture of Elizabeth’s radio speech to children, the author specifically refers to Hitler by name. I don’t have an editorial criticism of this, but I think that parents and educators will want to decide whether to introduce this villain to children of the Golden Book age range, as young as toddlers, or early primary grades. They will ask who he is and that will involve a discussion you might want to postpone until later. On the other hand, the inclusion of Elizabeth’s wartime service as a driver and mechanic is wholly appropriate. Many news articles about her described her choice to engage in this service. (My favorite newsreel clip shows her fixing sparkplugs. Her parents seem both amazed and delighted at this process.)
There are descriptions and pictures of the Queen in her coronation robes and crown, and scenes from her family life and official events, including a carriage ride with Nelson Mandela. The latter event pointedly states that she opposed apartheid in South Africa. When the book arrives at 1992, the year which the Queen characterized as her “annus horribilis,” the author again makes some interesting choices. “Being queen wasn’t always easy,” she writes, although the picture shows a smiling woman in front of her Christmas tree. Arena is rather frank for a Golden Book, alluding to the failure of Charles and Diana’s blighted marriage, and to the fire in Windsor Castle. The book ends of a jubilant note, with the very recent Platinum Jubilee. But the most poignant and also most accessible lesson of the book is its concluding statements, that the Queen put hard work and service “above everything.” Granted any cynicism some readers may have about the nature of “hard work” given those lavish surroundings and multiple bedrooms, the book provides enough realism and historical context to make the late Queen’s legacy meaningful to kids on either side of the pond.