Sometimes a book stands out from the rest. This book does, through the incredible illustrations and the well-written text, and, perhaps, through the loneliness that bleeds through the pages.
The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum
by Kate Bernheimer, illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli
Schwartz & Wade/Random House (February 2008)
ISBN-10: 0375836063, ISBN-13: 978-0375836060
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
When children came to the museum, they pressed as close as they could to the glass globe in which the castle quietly sat.
For they had heard if they looked hard enough, they could see the girl who lived inside,
the girl in the castle inside the museum.
—The Girl In the Castle Inside the Museum by Kate Bernheimer, illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli, p. 6-8.
There’s a tiny girl who lives inside a toy castle inside a museum. She’s only visible if the children looking in are quiet and look hard enough. The girl is often lonely, and when the children leave, she dreams of them visiting her–until she brings the reader into the story. The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum is beautiful, sad, and slightly creepy; I found myself both pulled in and loving it, and pushed away, slightly repelled–but loving it won out overall.
Bernheimer (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales) starts the story like a fairy tale, with the familiar “Once upon a time,” which places the reader immediately in fantasy mode, ready to hear a story. It’s the perfect start for this fairy tale of a story of a castle, a lonely girl, and someone to save her (the reader). Bernheimer further increases the magical feeling of the story by telling us that if the children looked hard enough, they’d see the girl inside–as if they believe fervently enough, and use their imaginations, magic can happen, a tiny girl inside a toy castle will come alive.
We start out viewing the girl from a distance, in the castle, then learning that it’s in the museum, and then as if we are one of the characters, peering in through the window to see the girl. We hear her dreams, her ache of wanting a friend, and then we are asked to be that friend, to put a photo of ourselves in the girl’s castle so we keep her company. and then we’re told that she sees us. Bernheimer has created a story with true reader interaction, by having the child place a photo of themselves on the last page, and the story building up to the child becoming a part of the lonely girl’s world. This also draws out reader compassion, since the child in the story is lonely, and by the reader’s act of putting their photo in the story, the girl in the story won’t be so lonely any more.
The girl in the castle is never named, and this feels deliberate. It may give some readers a greater chance of identifying with the character if they get to name her in their own minds. The girl not being given a name also reinforces her loneliness, and her lack of true interaction or conversation with the other characters (who are also not named). There’s a sadness and aloneness to this, which at times feels almost oppressive. This is alleviated some by the ending–but there is still a sadness to the book.
After we learn that the girl in the castle is lonely, we then hear how the girl appreciates the beauty of her castle, that it is full of music and grace, and then that she dreams of the children visiting her. This helps alleviate the lonely quality a little, though it has a bittersweet, still lonely feeling about it.
Bernheimer’s text flows like a well-crafted fairy tale. Words feel carefully chosen to create the feeling of a myth or magical tale–such as “It’s been said she’s lived there forever,” not “she’s lived there forever.” Bernheimer also asks the reader questions, here and there, which encourage the child to use their imagination and fully enter the story. At times the questions felt like a slightly different voice, and threw me, but I think they will grab young children’s interest and get them to respond. Some readers may find aspects of the book creepy, such as that the girl has lived in the castle forever, that she dreams of the reader, and that she can see the reader.
The book may especially appeal to children who’ve felt lonely or isolated, although the book may be too painful for some of the children because the loneliness is so poignant. Still, the girl in the castle shows the reader a few coping strategies for feeling lonely and isolated–to see the beauty around you, to day dream of better things, and to have a photo or picture of a loved one where you can look at it.
Berheimer creates a surreal, fun, possibly creepy idea when she suggests that the girl is truly alive in the castle, inside the museum, in the book that you hold in your hands. I love that touch–bringing the reader even more fully into the story through that mention, and then through telling the reader that we keep the girl company. That helps bring a small uplift to the story. The story ends with the narrator telling the reader “Do you see her? She sees you,” which may be affirming for some children, and slightly creepy for others. The story would have had a more uplifting, hopeful feeling to me if it had ended where we’re told that we keep her company in a magical world. Still, the ending suggests that the reader has found a new friend in the girl, and the girl in the reader, which is a lovely idea, and will please many readers.
Ceccoli’s (Oscar and the Mooncats, An Island In The Sun, Firefighters in the Dark) illustrations are stunning, and visually make the book stand out, just as they did with Oscar and the Mooncats, though some readers might find the illustrations a bit unsettling. Ceccoli strongly picked up and built on the emotion in the text; her illustrations are beautiful, magical, and haunting–perfect for a fantasy with a slight twinge of creepiness. The characters don’t look happy in most of the illustrations; instead, they look wistful, sad, even lonely. THis feeling is accentuated by the pale, wan, almost doll-like faces of the characters, with large, widely spaced eyes and small mouths. They look dramatic and slightly sad, yet the girls looking in also look entranced and hopeful.
Ceccoli makes great use of texture–showing graininess in the castle, and texture that looks like brush strokes in the sky. The castle looks almost like it’s made of clay or plastercine, and has a strong three-dimensionality to it, with great, differing perspectives, often as if we are looking down at a doll house, or in through a window, like the girl characters are. This feeling is enhanced by all the illustrations bleeding right to the edges of the pages, the rooms having no borders.
Ceccoli’s artwork has a surreal feel to it, and seems at times to draw inspiration from Escher, with black-and-white checker floors that turn in to stairs or boxes as they move across the page, from surrealists, with symbolic objects placed around the illustrations and little staircases suddenly protruding from walls, and from magic realism, with the wafting star dust or cloud trails leading to the girl in the castle, and hair that is almost always blowing backwards as if from an invisible breeze.
The walls and sky start off fittingly grey, as the girl is looked at from a distance. As the girl thinks about the beauty of where she lives, the colors grow slightly warmer, to a yellow-green grey, and as she dreams, there are greater stretches of browns and yellows.
There is so much to look at in the illustrations–strange, odd-looking, fun-to-pore-over toys, such as an orange-and-blue striped fish on wheels, a wind-up bird in a cage, and several strange-looking wind-up rabbits. Many readers will enjoy observing all the small, neat details Ceccoli’s included, such as a button perched on top of a castle tower, and what looks like red swirl candies on other towers. From the illustrations, it looks as though the castle resides in a toy museum, though the text doesn’t specify what kind of museum.
The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum is a visual treat to feast your eyes on. The book will enthrall readers. It may not be the book for everyone–what book is?–but those that enjoy it will enjoy it immensely, from the well-crafted story to the beautiful, surreal illustrations. The book seems best suited for older or more mature children. Highly recommended.