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  • Writer's picturePicture Book Snob

This birthday suit is a royal hoot

The King's Birthday Suit by Peter Bently and Claire Powell, Bloomsbury

The King's Birthday Suit by Peter Bently and Claire Powell, Bloomsbury

"King Albert-Horatio-Otto the Third had so many clothes it was simply absurd.

He had outfits for yoga and stroking his cat. He never ate cheese without changing his hat.

For every event he would wear something new - he even changed outfits to go to the loo..."

What's it about?

Fashion-obsessed King Albert-Horatio-Otto the Third needs to find an outfit like no other to dazzle all the guests at his birthday party. A new suit, made from fabric unlike anything ever seen before (or seen at all), makes the king stand out, but for the wrong reasons. This rhyming retelling of classic fairy tale, The Emperor's New Clothes, is even more hilarious than the original, and the illustrations are exquisite.

What can we learn?

Trying too hard to impress others often achieves the opposite, especially if we to lie to ourselves and those around us. We shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and question authority. It’s never a good idea to go along with something we don’t believe in just because everyone else is doing so. When we use false pretences to avoid seeming silly, we end up looking even more foolish. Focusing too much on the superficial will ultimately leave us exposed!

Even the endpapers are hilarious

What makes this stand out?

It's incredibly clever and funny, with amazing illustrations which are as elaborate as the king's majestic wardrobe.

About those illustrations...

I was actually blown away by the illustrations - they're absolutely stunning and take the comedy to the next level. The images have a luxurious, decadent, 1920s, art-deco quality, and there is so much to see and admire on each page. Feathers and furs, opulent cushions, gilded furniture, finely-decorated screens and intricate mosaics abound. I love the gigantic portraits of the pompous, posing king that fill the walls, and his cat is priceless too.

Whether dressed to coordinate with the king, trailing toilet paper, bursting balloons, or wearing a dinosaur onesie, the cat is always entertaining. I love her little cowboy boots and her body language is brilliant. She appears not to be fooled by the fraudulent tailors and, in a top hat and dicky bow, laughs hysterically at the king's new "clothes."

The King's Birthday Suit by Peter Bently and Claire Powell, Bloomsbury
That grape hat!

My kids and I love seeing the balloons popped by the cat and then by cocktail sticks on a plate of food carried by waiting staff. I love all the tabloid headlines in the endpapers and the visual clues within the story like the newspapers announcing that con artists are on the run. The snake oil sticking out of one of the dishonest tailor's bag gives another glimpse of their true nature.

At one point, as curious courtiers listen against the weaving room door, a mouse can be seen on the other side, presumably listening for the cat. The facial expressions of the characters are so amusing, particularly those of the king when he meets the tailors, "sees" their fabric for the first time and is measured for his suit. The leery duchess with a glint in her eye in the concluding pages cracks me up too.

As much as I love the illustrations, my kids find them even more captivating. They love looking at the crowds and the outfits worn by all the characters, especially the fashion designers. They spend ages examining each page (and choosing their own favourite clothes and accessories from those on display). They love the scene where the king chooses a hat for eating cheese (while wearing one that looks like a bunch of grapes). They're also fond of the king's banana waistcoat, and the final scene always gets a huge laugh.

Spot the scoundrels

Why we love it...

Everything about this is terrific! From the king's triple-barrelled name to his Dali-esque moustache and fluffy white cat. We are huge fans of Peter Bently's playful sense of humour and genius concepts, and love his masterful rhyming texts. We're mad about Claire Powell's art and I love her Instagram page too. I first heard about this book via Instagram back in January and have been dying to read it ever since.

The Emperor's New Clothes was among my favourite stories as a child and I can vividly recall scenes from our old Ladybird book. When I discovered Peter Bently and Claire Powell were reviving it, I was intrigued. I knew it would be in excellent hands and wasn't disappointed. It's wonderful to share a new version with my kids and see how much they enjoy it too.

My kids don't get the Elvis reference but still love this suit (and all the balloon popping)

I love how relevant this tale still is and how such a comical story can impart so much wisdom. I was fascinated to discover that although Hans Christian Andersen's version was published in 1827, this story can be traced back as far as 1052! It first emerged in India in an anthology of fables called Nirvánalílávatí by Jinesvara. This concerns a merchant who tricks a king by pretending to make a garment that cannot be seen or touched by any person of illegitimate birth.

It appears again in Libro de los ejemplos, a Spanish collection of stories published in 1335. According to Wikipedia, Andersen read a German translation of the Spanish tale, called So ist der Lauf der Welt. In the Spanish and German texts, scoundrels claim to make a cloth invisible to any man not the son of his presumed father. Andersen's adaptation shifts the focus to pride and vanity, and places a child at the crux of the narrative.

The King's Birthday Suit by Peter Bently and Claire Powell, Bloomsbury
Loook at the king's face behind the screen

Why you need it...

There's a reason this story's popularity has endured for centuries - it's a highly amusing but meaningful fable, and this retelling is marvellous. Little readers will love that a child is the hero and enjoy laughing at the grown-ups. Adults who grew up with The Emperor's New Clothes will appreciate this fresh take on the original tale. The King's Birthday Suit gives familiar material an exciting makeover, and I hope Peter and Claire weave their magic on more fairy tales soon!

About the author:

Peter Bently won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize for Cats Ahoy! and King Jack and the Dragon was an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. He has written approximately 70 children's books (wow!) and lots have been translated into several languages. You can learn more about Peter's books and his upcoming events on his website:

Love that leering duchess!

About the illustrator:

Claire Powell is the illustrator of several picture books including Octopants and The Night Before the Night Before Christmas by Kes Gray. Claire is a former graphic designer who has shaped the identity of many brands and you can see more of her work on her website:

More amazing endpapers!

We were thrilled to receive a copy of this book in advance of publication from the lovely people in Bloomsbury - all opinions expressed are our own.


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