It’s a sad fact, but, if you’re the parent of a young girl, at some point, there’s a better than average chance that you’ll have to deal with the creeping horror that is the princess book genre. The princess craze is an amazing thing to behold. It’s like an airborne pathogen or some kind of morphic field cultural memory download. It just worms your way into your child’s subconscious with no obvious point of entry. Even if your daughter is the most tomboyish tomboy on the block, eventually, there’s like a 90% chance that you’re going to have to buy her a princess dress and a cringe-inducing selection of princess-themed reading material at some point. (No parent should have to read their child a book this pink at bedtime.)
And, trust me, resistance is futile. I’ve spent countless hours already trying to shape my daughter into a gender-proud feminist (and she’s FIVE) and yet there I was – taking her to a Disney Princess breakfast at EPCOT (by myself!) and making sure that we saw every damn princess in that park. Why? Because she simply loves princesses and fighting against their appeal is just going to make me the common enemy of both my daughter and the princess industrial complex. And I won’t survive if they unite to take me down.
So, how do I fight back? I mostly do it through books. I am still a MAJOR gatekeeper when it comes to my daughter’s reading material, so, at the moment, I do have the ability to keep her away from cheap throwaway titles like Barbie: The Princess Shoe Party Fashion Show and Cinderella: A Sparkly Royal Thanksgiving… which are EVERYWHERE and are just as soul-crushing as they sound. While I hide those titles behind the periodicals at the local library, I spend a good deal of time searching for really engaging princess stories that I then subtly push her way.
And that’s a challenge. It’s not easy finding princess books where the princesses aren’t passive, aren’t beholden to a prince, and have lives and agendas of their own. And, on the flip side, I also don’t want to give my daughter really hacky, didactic propaganda pieces where the author is just out to scream, “AND THE PRINCESS COULD DO ANYTHING THE PRINCE COULD DO! AND PROBABLY BETTER!” (If I could find the video of 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon as her high-school football place kicker, missing an easy kick and cheering “Equality!”, I’d put it here.) Even if I agree with the message, if it’s not a well-told story, forget about it.
As a service to you parents out there who may have children suffering from princess mania or who just simply can’t face down another royal Disney bedtime, here are six really impressive princess books that your kids will enjoy and that won’t make you curl your fists in post-feminist rage.
This is an extremely fun title – particularly if your child is already familiar with the normal Disney princess canon. Princess Paulina is struggling with peasant life now that her father, the king, has given up his throne to become a wood-carver. So, when she hears that Prince Drupert is seeking a wife, she hurries over to “get back to princessing” and finds herself in a competition against other potential princesses to be his bride. The humor in Princess and the Pizza is really irreverent and clever – it reminds me a lot of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre – particularly as Princess Paulina realizes how ridiculous the competition is. She’s competing against nicely exaggerated versions of classic princesses like Snow White and Rapunzel and, after a cooking competition where Paulina accidentally invents pizza, the book ends with a great twist – Paulina sees the value in what she’s created, tells Drupert to shove it, and opens a successful pizza joint. This is a very silly take on the whole notion of princessing, but Paulina is such an expansive, resourceful character that your princess-jonesing kids will love her. (Age range: 3 and up. It’s more of a storybook than a picture book, so there’s a fair bit of text on its 32 pages.)
2. Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Lane Smith
Readers of this blog won’t be surprised at all to hear me praising a book by Florence Parry Heide and Lane Smith, but, all of my preferences and biases aside, Princess Hyacinth is one of the best books either of them has ever done. (I will one day write a much, much longer appraisal of Princess Hyacinthfor the blog, but I couldn’t leave it off this list.) The concept is elegantly absurd – there was a princess with a problem. She floats. She can’t stop herself from floating into the air at any time. And, around that premise, Heide and Smith craft a story that just feels fresh and unique – you’ve never read a princess book like this before. Hyacinth is annoyed that she can’t play outside with the other kids (particularly with Boy, the young man she has a crush on), but she also longs to take full advantage of her unique condition and soar among the clouds. After a close call where she almost floats away into the stratosphere, Hyacinth becomes much more comfortable with who she is and decides to stop fighting against her problem and learn to enjoy it.
Smith delivers some of the best work of his career here, but, for me, it’s Heide’s prose that really makes Princess Hyacinth a classic. Her text reads like it was mined directly out of the mind of a kid, like the smartest seven-year-old in the world is telling you the greatest story she’s ever heard and, in my experience, kids eat that up. They can’t get enough of it. In my mind, the closing words of the book say it all: “The problem about the floating was never solved, and that’s too bad. But Princess Hyacinth was never bored again. GOOD.” Yes, it is. (Age range: 3 and up. There’s more text than some picture books, but it’s fairly large and fun to read.)
Cornelia Funke is a prolific and popular German author, best known for her Inkheart novels (they made them into a movie), but I fell in love with her thanks to her picture books, which are, frankly, amazing. Honestly. If you have kids – PARTICULARLY if you have girls – go out right now to a library or bookstore and get every picture book that Funke has ever done with Kerstin Meyer. They’re FANTASTIC. In their picture books like Pirate Girl or The Wildest Brother, the lead characters are always children who just really, really seem like children, which is, actually, a very hard thing for an author to pull off. Funke’s characters are astoundingly well-developed and she creates these wonderful little fables in which all of the details and story moments are disarmingly human and believable (and fun to read). Princess Pigsty is all about a princess who is sick of being sheltered. Princess Isabella hates being waited on, hates sitting around and doing nothing, so she tosses out her crown and declares that she wants to get “dirty”. Her father, the king, punishes her by forcing her to work in the kitchen and the pigsty, but it backfires when Isabella realizes that she LOVES camping out in the pigsty, loves doing things for herself, loves the satisfaction of working, and loves being self-reliant.
That’s a very cool message for kids, but, actually, my favorite moments in Princess Pigsty are towards the end, when the king invites Isabella to come back to the castle – not because she’s proven him to be a fool, but mostly because he misses her. And, while Isabella opts to stay in the pigpen, she does come back to visit and even recovers her crown, which seems like a definite gesture to make peace with her dad. I don’t know why, but that ending just kills me. I love that the characters don’t act like operatic buffoons. Yes, he’s a king, but he’s also a dad and he loves his daughter and actually admits that he was wrong – and parents just don’t do that in picture books that often. And Isabella, in turn, adjusts her behavior because even she realizes that she’s been less diplomatic than she should. Those moments, the moments where fairy tale characters act like real living breathing people, are why I’ve got such a dad-crush on Cornelia Funke and why TWO of her books made this list. (Keep reading.) (Age range: 3 and up. Kindergarteners and first-graders will LOVE this one.)
We have relatively few Robert Munsch books in our home library – not out of design; we’re just late-comers to this caustically entertaining Canadian children’s author and, believe me, we have friends who think much, much less of us for letting Munsch fall under our radar. (His fans veer towards the evangelical, in my experience.) That being said, you can’t have a collection of subversive princess literature without including The Paper-Bag Princess, a very direct, very funny indictment of the “Happily Ever After” scam. Princess Elizabeth leads a charmed life until a dragon burns down her castle, incinerates her clothes, ruins everything she owns, and kidnaps her handsome prince-to-be Ronald. So, the almost-naked Elizabeth proves that she’s made of stronger stuff by putting on a paper bag as a dress and using her wits to outsmart the dragon and save her prince.
Most stories would end here, but the real kicker of The Paper-Bag Princess comes after Ronald is rescued and the snotty prince tells Elizabeth, “You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.” (Oh snap.) What does Elizabeth do? She kicks the jerk to the curb, which is almost an even better lesson for young readers than having her slay a dragon. The story is all about this frilly princess having expectations of what the world is like and, when faced with reality, having to adjust and move forward. She won’t let a dragon get away with wrecking her castle and she won’t marry a creep who can’t even be grateful for being rescued, which, again, is a fantastic lesson for young girls. (Age range: 3 and up.)
What a cool, unusual book. I will fully admit that this picture book – which is really more of a coffee table book (and you know how I love coffee table books) – is definitely too old for my five-year-old daughter. There isn’t any objectionable subject matter, but the writing level is a bit over her head and it’s an incredibly dense book for young kids. That being said, The Secret Lives of Princesses is possibly the most visually arresting princess book that I’ve ever seen and my daughter does love flipping through the pages and marveling at the beautiful artwork. And the text is pretty fantastic as well. Lechermeier has created this extremely unique catalog of different kinds of princesses and none of them are the traditional damsel-in-distress sort.
There’s Princess Paige, the librarian; Princess Primandproper, with the permanently pinched face; and, beyond the wordplay (and the book is packed TIGHT with wordplay), you’ll find unusual princesses from all over the world. That fact alone makes this an essential princess read because finding a book that actually includes African princesses, Native American princesses, Indian princesses, Latina princesses, and Asian princesses, standing aside their Anglo-Saxon cousins, is next to impossible. Yes, this is more of a coffee table art book than a storybook and, no, I can’t actually imagine sitting down and reading this to my kid back to front. BUT I do love leaving this one out on her bookshelf for her to discover and watching as she pages through the strange and beautiful variety of princesses that the world has to offer. (Age range: 7 and up – however, much, much younger children will have fun leafing through the pages and marveling at the paintings.)
This is the second Funke/Meyer book on this list and it’s another great one, especially if you have a daughter who’s ever been forced to sit on the sidelines while the young boys around her go at it with toy swords and lightsabers. That’s the experience that Princess Violetta has suffered through in The Princess Knight – her mother died in childbirth, so her father, King Wilfred the Worthy, has raised Violetta in the same way that he raised his other three sons, encouraging them all to swordfight, wrestle, and behave like princes. Since Violetta was smaller, she spends most of her childhood being bowled over, until, after years of training and learning to be smarter, more aware, and more clever than her siblings, Violetta starts to prove herself as a skilled fighter. However, since she’s a princess and he has no idea what else to do with her, her father holds a jousting tournament to marry off Violetta – a fact that appalls Violetta to such a degree that she enters the contest in disguise to win her own hand in marriage.
This is an incredibly engaging female empowerment tale that, again, in Funke’s trademark style, is extremely human and relatable. Violetta’s father isn’t a bad man, but he’s grief-stricken and clueless about raising a girl, so, even when he makes a bad decision, it’s fairly obvious that he’s not some cartoonish oaf oppressing his daughter. He’s just a confused dad who made a mistake and, as a constantly confused dad myself, I love seeing more of us good-natured screw-ups turning up in fairy tales. If your daughter has ever picked up a lightsaber and showed her brother that girls can hit just as hard as boys, you need to pick up The Princess Knight. (Age range: 3 and up. But, just be aware that the book does open with the death of Violetta’s mother – there’s a beautiful illustration of her father mourning his wife – so, if your child is particularly sensitive about death, you might want to either skip this, warn them, or tread lightly.)