The Tale of Hilda Louise – Olivier Dunrea

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I am reading a suspense that is a well-written pleasure and very dense. So I’m double-dipping—reading shorter books while I finish this one. Absolutely disastrous for productivity—the windows are not washed, the for-pay work is behind—but I just turn my back on it all and slip into a book. Or two. The back-up book is a children’s tale that is magical and probably useful as well.

The Tale of Hilda Louise is a beautiful picture book with painted pages, mellifluous language and wonderful art. Hilda Louise is an orphan in Paris. She lives in a kind orphanage where the little girls wear frocks with aprons and hats like Madeline. Madame Zanzibar, the orphanage matron, is attentive and nurturing and given to exclaiming things like “Mon Dieu!” when Hilda Louise begins gently floating just off the ground one day.

This new skill, which improves by leaps and bounds, is the envy of all the other orphans and extremely useful for rescuing escaped balloons, balls from trees and baby birds fallen from their nests. No one discourages her so Hilda Louise works it to get better at flying. One day, a puff of wind carries her over the orphanage wall and all of Paris.

Hilda Louise does a pretty fair bird’s-eye tour of the main landmarks, the Eiffel Tower, the Bois de Boulogne, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe. But things get interesting when she floats through a window into the garret studio of an artist with the same red hair as her own. Olivier Dunrea’s story is charming. It’s a fairytale but one that is grounded in details that make it perfectly believable.

Fin de siècle Paris is picturesque and serves to remove the events from contemporary reality enough to make the book a safe read. I think the story would be particularly terrific for a kid who has been adopted. Hilda Louise is touched by magic but she is the agent of her own rescue. She parlays her ability and her adaptability to circumstance into a new story for herself. Happily ever after is still an excellent ending.

The Tale of Hilda Louise   Olivier Dunrea | Farrar Straus Giroux   1996

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