Reviews /

Tourmaline

Authored by Davide Cali
Illustrated by Fatinha Ramos
Published by Tate Publishing

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Originally published in Dutch in 2020, this English translation of Tourmaline was published by Tate Publishing in 2023. The fact that Tourmaline is published by Tate is significant, with the strikingly rich illustrations of Fatinha Ramos echoing papercut and collage techniques, creating an undulating landscape and stylised characters from blocks of textured colour. And colour is at the core of the story of Tourmaline, both literally and metaphorically, with each character being named after a colourful precious material: Ruby (red), Carnelian (reddish brown), Gold,  Emerald (green), Lazurite (blue), Amethyst  (purple), Topaz (commonly blue or orange), Crystal, Silver, Onyx (commonly black and white) and Tourmaline (a crystal which has a variety of colours). Princess Tourmaline awaits rescue from a tower, and a series of knights sets out to rescue her, the final one, the Onyx Knight, succeeding in their quest. There is a lot of coding going on here and, given the emphasis on colour in the naming of the knights, it would be interesting to know what lies behind the decision to represent only some of the knights with their associated colour – the Lazurite Knight, for instance, is red, while his horse is the blue of the mineral.

As the series of knights tries to reach the princess, all but the Onyx Knight prove too inept or vain to make it to the tower. They are defeated by a range of obstacles such as getting tangled in vines, riding in the wrong direction, getting lost in a field of wheat, or being afraid to get their cloak dirty. The story is conveyed on double page spreads, with one or two sentences for each knight’s attempt to reach the tower. The Onyx Knight succeeds because they didn’t get tangled in vines, didn’t ride in the wrong direction, didn’t get lost in a field of wheat, and weren’t afraid to get their cloak dirty. The Onyx knight is the only knight to be shown without their helm, and because of this we can see that she is a woman, and a woman of colour. Princess Tourmaline is shown as having light skin and so on the final page, as they kiss, the story ends with a relationship that is both interracial and same-sex.

As a gay man, and one with a professional interest in fairy and folk tale, I was excited to receive the package from the publishers and read ‘A Queer Fairytale’ on the front cover. It was with a real sense of disappointment that I decided that I needed to get a gay woman’s perspective before passing judgement in a review of Tourmaline in case I was seeing the story with too biased a male gaze. In fact, the book was passed between two gay women (one of whom is a primary headteacher) and a woman class teacher who has experience of using queer folk and fairy tales in her classroom. Their conclusions were the same as mine: it is unclear why a story which is, to quote the blurb, a ‘fairy tale that flips gender norms on their head’ needs to infantilise and belittle the male in order to make a point about the strength of a female knight and the possibility of love between women. As an example of what I perceive as negative gendering, we are told that ‘The Topaz Knight was crying because a crow had stolen his lollipop’.

The author could argue that not all of the failing knights are male, as the gender of the Gold, Emerald, Amethyst and Crystal Knights is not specified through pronouns. However, the denouement of the story, when the female knight kisses the princess, depends on the surprise generated by gender expectations, and the signs within the text and illustrations are surely meant to lead us to the conclusion that all of the knights who fail to rescue the princess are male.

I wanted to love this book (and the illustrations are certainly beautiful), and I wanted to be able to recommend its use to make visible and celebrate same-sex relationships. However, I am left recommending its use only as a class reader (in upper Key Stage 2) as long as the intention is to critique the gender roles within the story, perhaps placing it against common fairy tale representations of passive women in the past, but also questioning the way that maleness is portrayed in the book.

Shortlisted for the English 4-11 Picture Book Awards 2024 Fiction 7-11 Category