Princess books

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.)

Cinderella

How can something this boring be considered a “fantasy”?

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.

1. The Princess and the Pizza by Mary Jane and Herm Auch

The Princess and the Pizza

The Princess and the Pizza

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.

Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated

Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated

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.) [read the rest of the post…]

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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.” [read the rest of the post…]

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Giants Beware

A truly superior graphic novel for kids

My daughter and I have read a lot of books together this year. A LOT. But, as the year winds down and I find myself looking back at our favorite books of 2012 – the instant classics, the bedtime staples, the required road-trip reading – I keep coming back to Giants Beware!, a fantastic, tour de force graphic novel by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, which stands as one of the best examples of comics for kids that I’ve ever read.

And, because due diligence is important, I did check with my daughter before bedtime last night and she did authorize me to, quote-unquote, “tell your blog, Dad, that Giants Beware is my favorite new book I read this year.” So, it’s unanimous – Giants Beware is Building a Library’s Best Book of 2012.

What’s so great about Giants Beware? It’s hard to know where to start. I’ve been trying to review it for most of the year, but there are times when I like a book so much that I almost find it impossible to write about it. I find myself tripping over my words, unable to express how much I enjoy the book in question, until I’m halfway tempted to just type “Book am good. Make me happy” and be done with it. But Giants Beware does so much right, it deserves better and, thus, here we are.

With Giants Beware, Aguirre and Rosado have created a blockbuster reading experience. What I mean by that is – this graphic novel is so smart, exciting, accessible, and entertaining that, if it was a movie, it would make $500 million dollars at the box office. The experience of reading Giants Beware is akin to watching a Pixar movie. (One of the best ones.) You just sit there amazed at being told a story with such obvious genius and craftsmanship and also at how you and your child are both able to appreciate it on multiple levels.

That is all to say, I really, really like Giants Beware and so does my kid.

The story revolves around Claudette, a headstrong tomboy who’s always clutching a wooden sword and who can’t wait to one day leave her provincial village and prove herself as a mighty giant slayer. Her father, the town blacksmith, used to be a renowned adventurer (and is now missing a few limbs due to those adventures), and Claudette is aching to follow in his phantom footsteps. She especially wants to set off on a quest to a local mountain range to hunt down a legendary local giant with a reputation for eating babies’ feet. (Aguirre and Rosado are able to make the alleged baby-feet-eating into something that’s really funny as opposed to downright chilling.)

Giants Beware

Don’t cross Claudette if you know what’s good for you…

Claudette is just a fantastic creation – she’s so singularly obsessed with killing monsters that she can barely see anything else in the world. She’s funny, clever, earnest, and loyal – her loyalty particularly shines through when it comes to her best friend Marie and her little brother Gaston. (One of my favorite Claudette lines comes after she dispatches some bullies who were picking on Gaston – “Violence is not just efficient. It feels good, too.”)

Giants Beware

Words to live by…

However, Claudette is so obsessed with slaying the feet-eating giant that she tricks Marie and Gaston into accompanying her on a giant-slaying quest – a quest that was expressly forbidden by both her father and the town’s ruling Marquis (who happens to be Marie’s father). As the kids set off across the countryside towards their date with a giant, pursued doggedly by their annoyed parents, they encounter witches, haunted trees, mad river kings, and a wide variety of fairy tale oddities, experiences that help them test their meddle, conquer their fears, and learn a lot more about the strange world around them.

Giants Beware is a very fun read that really connected with my daughter. It’s a longer graphic novel – around 200 pages – but, the first time I finished reading it to her, my daughter asked me to immediately re-read it, which has never happened before. But the re-read factor isn’t the only reason why I regard this as our favorite book of 2012. While, I’ll admit, there were books we read this year that packed a deeper emotional punch (a tear-jerker, this ain’t), Giants Beware is just an exceptionally accomplished piece of work, a work that shouldn’t be trivialized just because you could accurately describe it as “a fun adventure.”

Giants Beware

This is a seriously funny and beautiful book…

And, personally, one of the main reasons why I think I’ve responded to Giants Beware so strongly is that it expertly plays with so many of the children’s literature themes and tropes that I keep obsessing about on this blog (to the point where it almost feels like it crawled out of my subconscious at times). For example, let me list FIVE areas where I think Giants Beware really, really excels:

1. It’s an Ideal Comic Book for Kids

Recurring readers know that I’m a big proponent of exposing kids to comic books and graphic novels, but, as I’ve complained about before, most comic books aren’t designed in a way to make them accessible to developing readers. The vast majority of so-called “kid’s comics” have miniscule font sizes, hectic layouts, and little-to-no concern with helping new readers follow their way throughout the story. Giants Beware, on the other hand, excels at making itself both accessible and appealing to younger readers. The text is extremely readable, the layouts are clean and clear, and the visual storytelling is top-notch. Even though it’s 200 pages long, Giants Beware is a very quick, readable work for kids. I’d almost equate it to a beginning chapter book, along the lines of a Mercy Watson book, and there just aren’t that many kid’s graphic novels out there that pay such careful attention to the needs of new readers. [read the rest of the post…]

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Princess Hyacinth

Princess Hyacinth quietly waits for me to shut up about princesses...

To briefly clarify a point that probably doesn’t need to be clarified, just FYI, this isn’t just a blog about princess books. I’m kidding… kind of, but I know I’ve had a lot of princess-related content this week, so I just wanted to let people know that I’m still going to be covering a wide range of topics related to collecting the right kinds of books for your kids. Some weeks we’re going to be talking about princess titles, other weeks we’ll be talking about ABC books or road-trip books (no question – Richard Scarry makes the BEST road-trip books). But the princess thing has definitely struck a nerve and I’m glad we’re addressing it.

As I’ve done in the past, I’ve found some very interesting video online to accompany our recent discussion of princess books. This week’s clips… how do I put this… are both FANTASTIC, but for very different reasons. The first clip is just a ridiculously interesting and engaging look at how author-illustrator Lane Smith, a Building a Library favorite, actually creates his breathtaking picture books. The two books he focuses on are Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated (one of our featured princess books) and The Big Elephant in the Room, a book that my five-year-old has called “the funniest book I ever, EVER read.” This is a bit long and in-depth, but I find it totally fascinating.

The second clip is “fantastic”… in the most ironic sense of the word. What I mean is that – I find it “fantastic” that something this cheesy could ever be associated with a book as sly and un-ironic as Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess (another one of our “princess books for people who hate princess books”). This is a cartoon adaptation of The Paper Bag Princess that was created for a Canadian TV show in the 1990s called “Bunch of Munsch.” (How much do I love Canada for not only giving a children’s author his own animated show, but also NAMING it after him too?) And, while I applaud the idea of giving Munsch his own show… MAN, this is a horribly dated cartoon.

I am sure that there are people out there with a boatload of nostalgia for “Bunch of Munsch” and maybe I’m being overdramatic, but, seriously, the dragon RAPS. He RAPS. He has a song – that he raps – and the first line is “Dragon is my name and fire is my game.” WOW. Watch for historical reference only.

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