Check out these titles complied and commented on by Tom B. from the Building a Library blog. Thanks Tom! [material has been abridged by AB]
Six Princess Books for Parents Who Really, Really Hate Princess Books
by Tom B. on January 11, 2012
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 ... 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!” 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
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
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. (Age range: 3 and up. There’s more text than some picture books, but it’s fairly large and fun to read.)
3. Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer
Cornelia Funke is a prolific and popular German author– go out right now ... 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 think 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...TWO of her books made this list. (Keep reading.) (Age range: 3 and up. Kindergarteners and first-graders will LOVE this one.)
4. The Paper-Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko
The Paper-Bag Princess
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.)
5. The Secret Lives of Princesses, by Philippe Lechermeier, illustrated by Rebecca Dautremer
The Secret Lives of Princesses
What a cool, unusual book. The Secret Lives of Princesses is possibly the most visually arresting princess book that I’ve ever seen. 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. (Age range: 7 and up – however, much, much younger children will have fun leafing through the pages and marveling at the paintings.)
6. The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer
The Princess Knight
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... I love seeing more of us good-natured screw-ups turning up in fairy tales. (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 [the]child is particularly sensitive about death, you might want to either skip this, warn them, or tread lightly.)