In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Expanding the notion of Princess

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'll admit, we've deep-sixed a few books in this house. I've felt a little guilty each time; it's nice to know that Grandma Helen did it too. Sometimes it's because they're boring or badly written, but sometimes it's the content that makes me squirm. This is particularly true now that we've entered the beginning of a heavy princess phase in our house. (With two daughters, I expect that we're in for a good seven years of tiaras and Disney and happily ever after.)

I've been on a hunt for books that expand the notion of princess, that aren't just "She's really nice and pretty and then she marries the prince and they live happily ever after." Here are a few of my favorites that break or at least enrich or complicate the mold, some from my own childhood, some from you:

Helga's Dowry: A Troll Love Story, by Tomie dePaola
First off, everyone in this book is a troll, so they're small and dumpy and fun to look at. Helga is supposed to marry the handsome troll Lars, but he turns out to be a jerk and wants a dowry, so she uses ingenuity and troll magic to earn her own dowry, and along the way accidentally impresses the troll king, who falls in love with her. Helga is spunky and smart, and the book is a lot of fun. (I'm also a fan of dePaola's Strega Nona series.)

, by Jay Williams
Petronella is born into a royal family that, before her, has only had sons. She was supposed to be the next Peter, find a princess to marry, and come back to rule the kingdom. Though she's a girl, she goes out adventuring anyway, looking for a prince to bring home. She finds one at the house of a great enchanter, completes impossible tasks, fights the enchanter, and ultimately realizes (once she's defeated him) that the enchanter himself is a lot more interesting than the prince, who is kind of a dip. (In a lot of ways, it's similar to Helga's Dowry.) The edition I grew up with had amazing loopy Monty Python-like illustrations by Friso Henstra. It's out of print now, but I found it for too much money here on Alibris (I hope this is the right one. The cover picture is wrong, though).. I can't vouch for the illustrations of the new version, but the story is good.

The Paper Bag Princess
, by Robert Munsch
This seems to be the one most people know. Eleanor was not as into it as some of the others, probably because Princess Elizabeth is wearing a paper bag instead of something beautiful, but it's a fun twist on the normal ending, as she runs off happily by herself after outsmarting the dragon and rescuing the dippy ungrateful prince. The thing I like most about Munsch's books is that they have the kind of random kid logic that's accurate to little kids. As in: everything in the castle is burned by the dragon except for a paper bag.

The King's Equal
, by Katherine Paterson
This is a slightly longer book, more serious in tone and in illustration style, but quite beautiful. Thanks for sending us this one. The only other thing I'd read by Paterson is Bridge to Terabithia, one of my old YA favorites which I can hardly even think about without choking up. The King's Equal isn't weepy at all, but is another story of the girl (Rosamund, poor, kind, and smart) proving herself to be as wise, beautiful, and rich as the selfish and unpleasant Prince Raphael. The nice thing about this one is that Raphael has to go off by himself for a year, along with a few goats and a magical talking wolf, to prove himself worthy of Rosamund. Eleanor really likes it. The only downside to Vladimir Vagin's intricate illustrations is that the page with the picture of three gorgeously dressed princesses has no text on it, and she's always trying to turn the page while I'm still reading so she can see the picture.

The Princess and the Pizza
, by Mary Jane and Herm Auch
This is Eleanor's favorite of your princess book recommendations, hands down. It's silly, with some nice wordplay and alliteration, and has references she can pick up. She knew the story of Snow White already, so when Auch refers to the princess with the seven little men following her, Eleanor was excited to be able to identify her. On the other hand, we hadn't yet read Rapunzel, and when we explained the Rapunzel story so Eleanor could get that reference too, suddenly all she wanted to do was play Rapunzel, which is not so feminist a story. Ah, well. Like Paper Bag Princess, in this one Princess Paulina ends up happily not married to the prince, and founder of her own successful business.

Any I'm missing here?

Love, Annie


  1. We read Helga's Dowry last night, and thought it was really cute. We read The Princess and the Pizza a few nights ago, and Kate keeps saying (spoiler alert) "Pete's... ah......" She really enjoyed it, and wants to read it again. Both books were from the library, but may need to become permanent fixtures in our home. I'm loving the suggestions! Anything to break the monotony of Disney and Barbie princesses!

  2. What a great subject! I teach ballet to small children, and I struggle with the plots and characters of the great classical ballets. So I put classical music to other stories for us to tell, like Where the Wild Things Are. I can't WAIT to check some of these out!