The Trouble with Princess Books: The Strange Case of Wonder Woman

by Tom B.

Wonder Woman: Princess Superhero

Wonder Woman: The Ultimate Princess Superhero. Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

Following up on the discussion that got started yesterday (and, wow, thanks again for the epic response on that one, guys), when I first set out to find some non-traditional princess books for my daughter, my mind leapt immediately to one of the most iconic female characters in all of literary history – Wonder Woman.

Because, c’mon, can you think of a more kick-butt, take-no-prisoner, I’ll-rescue-myself princess than Wonder Woman? In my mind, I imagined my daughter in her bed late at night, pouring over the adventures of Diana, princess of the Amazons, marveling at her great deeds and bugging me with endless questions like, “Wonder Woman could beat up Superman in a fight, right?” or “When I grow up, can I get my own invisible plane?” Say what you will about Wonder Woman, but she’s no shrinking violet. She’s not going to wait up in a tower for someone to rescue her. She’s an active, forceful princess who isn’t just strong and self-reliant, but she’s also altruistic and actively works to help the less fortunate. She’s the whole package!

I was CONVINCED that Wonder Woman was going to be the answer to every one of my over-worrying dad, princess gender-identity woes, because you know what’s cooler than a princess? A princess SUPERHERO. How the heck can Snow White or the Princess and the Pea compete with that?

Plus DC Comics has been publishing Wonder Woman since 1941, so there HAD to be libraries full of Princess Diana stories just waiting for my daughter to discover them, right?

However, I very, very quickly ran into a series of problems that I just never anticipated. Because, while Wonder Woman, on the surface, should be an incredibly easy sell to young readers as the coolest princess they’ve EVER seen, in reality, the character has a whole, whole lot of baggage that prevents kids – at least most kids younger than 11 – from embracing her as anything other than a Halloween costume.

Basically, I think there are two BIG, essential issues holding Wonder Woman back from being every five-year-old’s favorite princess.

PROBLEM #1: IMAGES

Wonder Woman

This is a very tame example of WW looking like a “Glamazon.” There are much, much creepier examples out there.

OK, while I might roll my eyes at the over-frilly, completely impractical ball-gowns in most princess stories, at least they’re not wearing star-spangled panties and a steel-plated halter-top in public. Wonder Woman’s costume is, indeed, iconic, but it’s also way too easy to sexualize and the vast majority of Wonder Woman comic book art can be described with adjectives like “heaving” or “engorged”. Fine, I understand why the ongoing “appropriate for teens and older” Wonder Woman comic book indulges so heavily in the cheesecake sexuality. They’re pandering to their 18-35 male demographic. However, it just seems to strange to me that, given Wonder Woman’s global appeal, DC Comics, WW’s publisher, doesn’t seem concerned with trying to find ways to introduce Princess Diana to younger readers. It’s like they’re purposely leaving money on the table.

Wonder Woman: Disney Style

THIS is a Wonder Woman a young girl could fall in love with…

There was actually an amazing recent post on the Tumblr blog “DC Women Kicking Ass”, where Tom Bancroft, an artist and former Disney animator, drew some fantastic sketches of Wonder Woman in the “Disney” style, as if she was a classical princess rather than a hyper-sexed valkyrie. And I LOVE those sketches. THAT looks exactly like the kind of young, tenacious, non-passive princess character that my daughter would INSTANTLY fall in love with. The author of the Tumblr post even commented that, “I’ve never, ever figured out why DC and Warner Bros. don’t do more to market Wonder Woman to young girls. She’s a princess for heaven’s sake.”

I’m not saying that I want to radically alter Wonder Woman’s iconic look and, you know, give her pants or anything (heaven forbid), but I think the Disney-style sketches really show how an artist can create a look that is 100% in the spirit of the classic Wonder Woman image without making her look like a sex worker. And, yes, DC does publish some younger-age appropriate depictions of Wonder Woman, but none of them are particularly significant. She’s either a minor supporting character (in the way fun Tiny Titans comic) or she’s in really crappy media tie-ins like sticker books or cheaply-produced “I Can Read” books. Which gets us to our next problem with Wonder Woman…

PROBLEM #2: WORDS

Wonder Woman

We can do so much better than this…

Wonder Woman has always been characterized as a “problematic” character in comic book history. Her beginnings are a bit odd – a pastiche of classic mythology and a normal superhero origin – and, while there have been some plotlines in her comic books that people have admired, there’s the definite impression that no one yet has really written the essential Wonder Woman story. Heck, people have a hard enough time even naming a few of her villains, much less her greatest adventures.

And this makes it especially hard for kids who become interested in the Wonder Woman icon – because there’s no real essential Wonder Woman story that you can direct them towards. You would think that you’d be able to go into a bookstore or a comic book store and easily pick up an age-appropriate retelling of the “Wonder Woman story” for your five-year-old daughter who just dressed up as Princess Diana for Halloween. And, if you’d think that, you’d be wrong.

There are precious, precious few Wonder Woman stories that are written for kids younger than 12 and most of the ones that exist are cheap toy-based easy readers that are just as bad as any Barbie or Bratz book you can find. It simply blows my mind that there is this character – a PRINCESS freakin’ SUPERHERO – that has SO much global cache and yet her publisher has never figured out a good way to make her appeal to perhaps her most obvious audience. Yes, gross fanboys like Wonder Woman because of her body, but her whole DNA just seems custom-designed for kids. And yet there is so little of the Wonder Woman canon that speaks to kids AT ALL.

THE SOLUTION?

I Am Wonder Woman

Finally, a Wonder Woman that I want to share with my daughter.

Remember when I said that “There are precious, precious few Wonder Woman stories that are written for kids younger than 12”? Well, as I mentioned, a “few” do exist and one or two of them are actually worth a damn.

My very, very favorite Wonder Woman books, at the moment, are a series of chapter books and early readers written by Nina Jaffe, a wonderful folklorist, and illustrated by the sublime Ben Caldwell. These were published in 2004 by HarperCollins and they’re regrettably now out-of-print. (Why, DC Comics, why?) I got my hands on a few used copies of these books and almost instantly began drooling. All I could think was “My daughter will loooove these!” And she does.

Jaffe does a really admirable job bringing out the best in Diana’s origin story and she nails a tone that is PERFECT for readers ages 3-8. Her Diana is smart and confident and all of her feats of strength are normally balanced out by descriptions of her intellect or her commitment to her message of peace. Fine, these aren’t epic works of mythology, but the chapter books are extremely compelling and well-done and the easy readers function as the perfect gateway texts for developing young readers who want to know what Wonder Woman is all about.

Wonder Woman

Finally. No one on Paradise Island looks like they’re a stripper…

But, I’ll admit, it was Ben Caldwell’s art that really knocked me out. His Wonder Woman is lean and girlish – she’s pretty and vibrant without a hint of the sweaty sexuality that surrounds her comic book appearances. She looks like a girl, not a statue, and my daughter instantly responded to Caldwell’s illustrations. “I love her skirt!” my daughter cooed, and I agreed. I thought Caldwell’s age-appropriate redesign of Wonder Woman was so wonderful, so important for my daughter to see, that I actually wrote him a fan letter. (And I got a very cool response – turns out that Caldwell has two young daughters, which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.)

Like I said, these titles are out-of-print, so they’re kind of a pain to find, particularly since some of them are going for exorbitant amounts in the online used book circuit. So, if you can find a reasonably priced copy, I’d say pick one up. As far as I can tell, Jaffe and Caldwell worked on five books together: Wonder Woman: The Journey Begins; Wonder Woman: Amazon Princess; Wonder Woman: The Rain Forest; Wonder Woman: I Am Wonder Woman; and Wonder Woman: The Contest. (We only have The Journey Beginsa chapter book – and I Am Wonder Woman and The Contestboth early readers.)

Wonder Woman: The Story of the Amazon Princess is definitely worth your time.

Wonder Woman: The Story of the Amazon Princess

The only other Wonder Woman book for young readers that I’ve seen (and liked) was Wonder Woman: The Story of the Amazon Princess by Ralph Cosentino. We don’t own this one – we read it at a friend’s house – but I was definitely impressed. Cosentino structures his book as an introduction to Wonder Woman for younger audiences, which, yeah, is exactly what the character needs. Cosentino’s retro illustrative style has a nicely timeless quality and, while the text is more of a primer on the character than a full-blown story, it does a very impressive job of placing the character in context for kids. You can give a child a copy of this book and they’ll finally be able to put together, “Ohh, so that’s why she’s on all those lunchboxes, billboards, and TV shows…” (Cosentino has also created similar young-reader-appropriate takes on the origins of Batman and Superman.)  The only issue you might have is that, after reading Cosentino’s book, your kids will be hungry for more, and there just isn’t much more out there for them until they become teenagers.

CONCLUSION

So, why am I complaining about Wonder Woman so much? Because I live in a world where many young children, including my daughter, really, really like princesses. And that’s fine – good for them. I’ll take it as my job as a father to accept that and then direct them towards the best examples of princesses I can find.

And, on the surface, Wonder Woman seems to be an ideal princess for little kids to embrace. She’s fun, she’s selfless, she’s clever, strong, noble – she even has a social conscious. And she’s already a globally recognized international ICON. In theory, she should be a no-brainer. She should be bigger than Cinderella and more empowering than Rosie the Riveter.

But she isn’t. And it’s because her publishers have never found a way to put together the right kinds of words and images to really make her speak to our youngest readers. And that’s a shame.

But I’m not going to write off Wonder Womanjust yet. Because I still believe that the image of the princess superhero can still be a really powerful symbol for young kids like my daughter. (And also, I’m a giant nerd… but that’s pretty implied after a grown man writes 1,700 words about his disappointment with a comic book character, right? Right.)

Wonder Woman

I still hold out hope for the inherent awesomeness of the princess superhero.

 

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly December 16, 2015 at 9:07 am

This post is old, but did you scour the bookstores in A2 for any copies of these for reasonable prices. I think my 8 year old son would enjoy these books. I noticed in one of your posts that you shopped at Literati, so I assume you live near A2.
Thanks,
Kelly

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Tom B. December 16, 2015 at 10:26 am

I am closer to Detroit, but I’m in A2 a lot. I actually haven’t been able to find those Nina Jaffe Wonder Woman books at any used bookstore. So far I’ve only found them online — sometimes at fair prices and sometimes not. Sorry I’m not more help!

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Alessandra Gentile Jegendal March 18, 2013 at 1:15 am

Great post! I’m on the look-out for strong female characters for my little boy. Not necessarily add role-models, but why not, just to give him that view on the world-where me his mom is also a potential superhero.

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ben c March 17, 2012 at 9:10 am

hi tom!
there are actually 6 jaffe WW books, 2 readers:
amazon princess
the journey begins

and 4 picture books:
i am wonder woman
the contest
the arrival
the rainforest

you can see a bunch of the art (and my other WW art) here:
http://web.me.com/bencaldwellart/bencaldwellart/PROJECTSww.html

cheers!
ben c

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Tom B. March 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Cool. Thanks for the complete list, Ben!

As you may be able to tell from the article, I’m a BIG fan of your work on the Wonder Woman books. Since the article was published, I’ve had 6 or 7 people (both friends and complete strangers) email me to tell me that they tracked down copies of the books. And every single one of them told me that they absolutely love the books, particularly your art, so thanks for making such a fantastic WW for a younger generation!

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fuingala January 28, 2012 at 1:45 pm
Michele January 19, 2012 at 10:48 pm

I don’t have a girl (and we’re not really into superheros in this house) but I really enjoyed reading this post! I was telling my friend all about it. And I’m buying her daughter one of your princess book suggestions for her party in a couple of weeks. Thanks Tom!

P.S. I found ‘The Stinky Cheese Man…’ and some Mercy Watson books today at the thrift store. Score. Oh how I love books.

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Tom B. January 20, 2012 at 9:52 am

Stinky Cheese Man and Mercy Watson are fantastic. That’s an awesome score.

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Sue (DC Women Kicking Ass) January 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Thanks for the shout out Tom. I though you might want to know that I recently came across at one of the “Dollar” stores some Wonder Woman books that are targeted to very young readers. After seeing Batman after Batman book, it was a joy to find these. Also there is the Touch and Feel Wonder Woman book that came out last year and is targeted for the very very young. I did a review of it on my site. For girls 11 and above I recommend the trade “JLA: League of One” – I gave it some girls that age including my daughter and they really enjoyed it.

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Tom B. January 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Thank you, Sue! I’m a big, BIG fan of your site.

And thanks, particularly, for the recommendations. I’ll definitely check out League of One as a potential “book my kid will read one day.” I would LOVE it if DC released a graphic novel, drawn in the Bruce Timm Batman Animated-style, that introduced Diana to a younger audience and didn’t, you know, linger over shots of her rear end, but I realize that might be a bit much to hope for.

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Linda Baker January 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Tom – YOU are my superhero!

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Tom B. January 13, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Right back at you, Linda! You’ve been our superhero for 5 years!

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Nikki January 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm

You just inspired me to buy more books! Most of those are super expensive though! I managed to find 3 (not new) for not too much. Thanks for your post!

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Tom B. January 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Yeah, the used prices for those Wonder Woman books are INSANE. I would love HarperCollins and DC Comics to put them back in print. (Maybe this will shame them into re-examining their decision.)

I mostly wanted to let people know they existed, so, if they can find reasonably priced copies, they can pick them up. But they’re seriously not worth paying collector-level prices for – they’re just fun reads and I LOVE the pictures. (I have had SO many discussions with my daughter about the breasts on her Wonder Woman action figure… it’s just nice to finally have an image of WW where that isn’t an issue.)

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Sarah January 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Kiely recently informed me that “Batman is for boys.” We tried to disabuse her of this notion but she’s kinda right–at least, Batman is *written* for boys. So this was a timely tip! I had never heard of the Wonder Woman books you write about here and I hate the oversexualization of modern-day female superheroes. I found a few reasonably-priced copies on Amazon so we’ll give it a whirl! At least one seller is listing /Wonder Woman: I am Wonder Woman/ for $2.95 plus $3.99 shipping so get it while you can.

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Tom B. January 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Oy – we’ve had similar discussions.

When Charley started getting interested in superheroes, I went out of my way to gather together a BIG selection of female action figures – I actually made sure that we had more girls than boys for several months – just so she could get comfortable with the idea that there wasn’t a gender hierarchy in the superhero world (even though, yeah, there really is).

I got Cha a Batman and then got her every female Bat figure I could get – Batgirl, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, The Phantasm, Talia, etc. (It also helped that I used to collect Batman Animated Series figures and had a ton in my basement that I bequeathed to her.) I wanted her to see these male icons surrounded by big female casts and let her know, “even though the boys in your class know Batman, I’m your daddy, I know more than they do, and let me tell you Batman’s world is filled with girls.” Which was nice and helped…. but I still rankle at the idea of it being “Batman’s world.”

Ah well. At least Cha has a ridiculous knowledge of almost every female superhero who ever got an action figure. She has no idea about a lot of major male heroes, but she’s very well versed in Kitty Pryde, Big Barda, Supergirl, etc.

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Jenny January 12, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Ok, I am shamefaced red because I assumed that such a sensitive and insightful post on Wonder Woman had to be written by a woman. What a sexist pig I am!

Bravo for such an amazing post on Wonder Woman! I agree… we need a Wonder Woman for young girls. A fully mythology, a complete ICON! As a child, I adored the earlier Linda Carter/WWII era Wonder Woman. Strong, smart, brave…It is what I want for my daughter.

I have a 2 y/o daughter with muy muy spunk. She’s beyond sassy, and while I will have to channel that, so she isn’t a rude person, I don’t want her strength or her spunk to be stamped out or a point of shame b/c she won’t fit the sick princess image!

Thanks for the post.

Heather LOVED Isis and Shazam.:)

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Tom B. January 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Don’t worry. I’m not that much of a man, so the confusion is understandable. :)

And, strong, smart, and brave is EVERYTHING I want for my daughter too!

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Jenny January 12, 2012 at 4:20 pm

You know, you have single handedly caused a run on the Jaffe WonderWoman books… watch the prices rise on amazon! LOL

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Tom B. January 12, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Some of them are already priced around $280 on BarnesandNoble.com. Man, if I inspire anyone to pay that much for those books, I’m going to get my butt kicked. I mean, they’re great, but they’re not 300 bucks, great… :)

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Heather D January 12, 2012 at 11:18 am

I was a kid during the 70s, so I got to read this: http://www.wonderwomancollectors.com/books-3.html
I wonder if my mother still has it.
I always wanted to read some Isis stories. I loved the Isis/Shazam hour on tv.
I’m so glad I have boys.

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Brimag January 12, 2012 at 11:06 am

My 2 yr old daughter is sitting on my lap as I read this. When I reached the Caldwell pages, she said, “She’s a princess! Read that, Mommy!” Girls do need more age-appropriate role models. Thanks for writing about it.

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Tom B. January 12, 2012 at 11:17 am

This totally made my day. Thanks for sharing that!

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