Speaking of marriage, Miss Negus married Mr Lucian Piper, father of her four-year-old Ana, whom the book is and dedicated to. Raluca took their surname, ‘to share it as a family’, so she is now publishing as Raluca Piper.
The Corn Princess is of course inspired by Ana: “She went through that stage of requesting stories all the time,” Raluca says. “I told her so many, that now she is inventing her own, mixing up bits of pre-existing ones, all expressed in a formal story-telling tone.”
Ana steers Raluca’s storytelling towards what she would like to hear: “She gives me clues, or she sketches characters for me to build a story about, so I go ahead and make them up on the spot.”
This is how The Corn Princess was born: “I was asked specifically for a fairytale involving a child princess and corn. I usually try to give my stories a meaning, a lesson to learn, relating to what she is going through, or something I’d like to teach her in a fun but memorable way.”
According to the author – and mum – children find growing up experiences challenging and sometimes scary, as they don’t wholly understand the adult world’s rules and cannot clearly process their own emotions, so it is important for them to realise that they are not the only ones feeling that way, or going through something. They need role models to guide them, and hope that a solution is always to be found.
The Corn Princess is the story of a beautiful emerald-eyed and corn-haired little girl – well, a little princess… but aren’t all little girls actual princesses? – who is a bit of a spoilt brat, throws tantrums about what to wear and what to eat, and is stroppy on sharing her toys, which she keeps locked away instead. Shortly after her fifteenth birthday, this unnamed princess (her name is revealed only at the end, with poetic symbolism of rebirth) goes for a spring stroll in the forest, but snubs the animals coming out of hibernation, and refuses to share the contents of her picnic basket with them.
Later, a red robin lands on her shoulder and she shoos it away. But the bird turns into a fairy, and the fairy turns the princess into a corn of cob! After the forest animals peck on it, and snatch it away in the depths of the forest, the princess’s tutor is left with only one kernel to return to the King and Queen for them to mourn their precious daughter.
Not knowing what else to do with it, they plant in a field. It grows in a stalk bearing more cobs. Soon, the whole field is filled with stalks bearing fruit, and long graceful blonde corn silk, just like the lost princess’s flowing hair.
The King and Queen cherish the corn field as the sole token of their precious daughter left to them, but they allow needy people to collect any cobs fallen on the ground, and cobs seem to fall spontaneously ‘on demand’, as if the Princess herself wished to share her bounty with the less fortunate.
This act of kindness is repaid by the miracle of rebirth, which I can’t of course fully disclose here – you’ll have to read on! And appreciate the mesmerising illustrations that punctuate the pages.
Raluca’s painting style has matured further and has diversified. The cover art introduces the reader to a sophisticated fairytale setting with its surreal, delicate purple haze, interrupted by an assertive poppy that stabs the mist with its white stalk bursting out skywards in a flash of red. Bright colours, with a predominance of blues, and geometric lines, mostly triangular, dominate the second illustration, perhaps representing the location of the story, perhaps reminiscing Raluca’s childhood landscapes: it reminds me vaguely of a railroad village, slit by zebra and level crossings, where the passage of time is marked by the passage of trains.
My favourite picture in this booklet is the depiction of the enchanted forest, deconstructed in squiggly lines of all colours, albeit predominantly spring green, dotted with blue, red, yellow and red will-o’-the-wisps that suggest fairies dancing.
Abstract is pretty much the codeword for the following picture, a starburst of primary colours joy which suggests the healing power of maize, with its golden silk, its kernels scattering in all directions, carrying a message of hope and spiritual nurture for all those who enjoy this cereal as staple food.
Finally, the last illustration is a return to Raluca’s signature atmospheric spheres: two blue planets on stark black background, connected by baby’s-breath branches, symbolising the indissoluble bond between mother and child.
“I wanted to publish this book soon, so I decided to use my current paintings for it,” Raluca says. “Ana’s birthday was coming up, and her school has the tradition that the birthday boy or girl takes a book to school as a present. I wanted to donate The Corn Princess as a gift to her friends and future generations. I don’t rule out the option of a second edition in the future, with different illustrations, and including feedback from the children. I have been invited by the school director to read the story to the children so it’s a good opportunity to see how they feel about it and improve it.”
Her target audience is age 4-10, and the story is pedagogic for girls and boys alike. “The protagonist could have been a prince, and the story would have been the same; I picked a princess for my daughter to relate more directly and take the hint. There is a lesson for parents too: the book’s ending offers a second chance to the King and Queen to raise their baby girl again, without excess spoiling.”
Raluca explains her choice of princess’s beauty: “A princess must be beautiful in young children’s minds, according to the popular culture so engrained in them. I wonder how girls would react if a fictional princess wasn’t pretty? I am sure they would be confused. But this princess’s beauty is obscured by selfishness and bossiness. When the fairy turns her into corn, which is useful hence beautiful, she’s taught a lesson about kindness and generosity. The first is what makes us really beautiful, and the second makes us happy. The King and Queen are happy to donate their magic corn to the less fortunate, and their generosity doesn’t only break the spell, but rewards them with a do-over.”
Raluca believes that illustrations in a children’s book are paramount to convey the core message, as they linger in the children’s mind long after having enjoyed the story. “Also, stories featuring categorised characters unexpectedly changing their behaviour to knock down arguable stereotypes are a good way to highlight and uproot those stereotypes from the reader’s mind.”
So, what’s next for Raluca? A second children’s book, The Quest for Colours, a moving love story (watch this space), and… painting, painting, painting! After having sold nine pieces of her early collection, and her recent success at the International Art Exhibition with the Urban Composition also featured in her book, and Robot in a Theatre Play, an energetic pure abstract in bold colours and even bolder block lines.
The Corn Princess is available on Kindle for £3.49 and on Amazon paperback for £6.99.