By: Amber Leventry
Damsels in distress. Princesses waiting for their knight in shining armor. Happily ever after. Blah, blah, blah. As a kid I was never a fan of this story line. I was too busy catching crawfish and playing home run derby with the neighborhood boys. As I grew into a young adult, the princess routine reminded me just how different I was from the rest of the girls. I preferred clothing meant for a prince and I was more interested in falling in love with his sister. When I became a parent, I refused to let my daughter feel the constraints of gender stereotypes.
When my daughter first got the itch for princess paraphernalia, I resisted all things associated with the princess cliché. Then I read Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess and realized I could show my daughter what strong-willed, confident, and independent-thinking girls and women can do—even as jewel and tiara wearing royalty. I set out to find books that appealed to her interest in fairy tales, but that emphasized the value in being brave, smart, and independent.
Here are 10 of my favorite books that break gender stereotypes and celebrate unconventional princesses.
The Paper Bag Princess, Robert Munsch
You really can’t go wrong with any of Robert Munsch’s classic children’s stories. Munsch published The Paper Bag Princess in 1980, but the book’s message is timeless and right on. After a dragon burns down the kingdom and kidnaps the prince, Princess Elizabeth sets off to rescue him. She does the job while wearing the only outfit not burned to a crisp: a paper bag. Instead of being grateful for his freedom and the princess who saved him, the prince insults Elizabeth’s appearance and tells her to come back when she looks like a real princess. Elizabeth replies, “Your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.” Elizabeth happily never married the prince.
Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple
Jolen and Stemple use rhyming text to showcase girls of all races wearing a sparkling crown while wearing sports cleats, using power tools, jumping in puddles, choosing overalls over fancy dresses, and eating dinner with enthusiastic abandon. Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, reminds kids that sometimes princesses are the kinds of girls who love to sweat, get dirty, and fight evil sorcerers.
Part-Time Princess, Deborah Underwood
Part-Time Princess is about a little girl who says she is just a “regular girl” by day who seems to already feel the pressures of what a girl isn’t supposed to do. But at night she becomes a princess who saves the kingdom from dragons and studies fencing and magical beasts. She becomes a girl who is fancy, but brave and fierce, but kind. My hope for this part-time princess and any girl who wants to be more than a “regular girl” is that she turns her princess dreams into a full-time job.
Interstellar Cinderella, Deborah Underwood
In another book by Deborah Underwood, Interstellar Cinderella is the best spin on the Cinderella story I have read. In this version, Cinderella dreams of fixing fancy rockets. When her family is invited to the prince’s Royal Space Parade, Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters steal her toolbox and strand her with a broken space ship. With the help of a robot mouse, a fairy godrobot, and a sonic socket wrench, all of Cinderella’s dreams come true.
The Princess in Black, Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
Wife and husband team, Shannon and Dean Hale created a four book series called The Princess in Black. The first book in the series goes by the same name. Princess Magnolia and her unicorn Frimplepants seem to be perfectly prim and proper, but they are secretly the Princess in Black and Blacky, the kingdom’s monster fighting duo. With ninja skills, bravery, and smarts P.I.B. and her trusty pony answer every call from the monster alarm. These books with short chapters are geared for early readers ages 6-8. But there are great photos, lots of humor, and are perfect for younger kids too.
Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, Ian Falconer
Ian Falconer is one of my favorite children’s book author. His books’ main character, Olivia the pig, embodies toddler stubbornness, independence, and creativity in genius fashion. Each book reminds us that standing out and marching to the beat of your own drum are qualities to embrace. In Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, Olivia is disgusted with the number of girls—and some boys—who want to be pink, ballerina loving princesses. She wonders why they don’t want to be “an Indian princess or a princess from Thailand or an African princess or a princess from China? There are alternatives,” she states.
As she overcomes her self-described identity crisis, she wonders what it would be like to be a nurse, a reporter who exposes corporate crime, or someone who adopts children from all over the world. In the end she decides the only job fitting for her is queen.
The Princess Knight, Cornelia Funke
Much like Munsh and Falconer, Cornelia Funke’s books should be on your child’s bookshelf. Her books are witty, entertaining, and empowering, showing girls as strong and self-sufficient. The Princess Knight is about motherless Princess Violetta who is raised by her father, King Wilfred, in the same way he raised his three older sons. She learns to ride horses while wearing heavy armor and becomes more nimble and quick than her brothers. But when her father decides it is time for her to be married to the man who can win the royal jousting tournament, she takes matters into her own hands and wins it herself while disguised as Sir No-Name. Her prize is to continue to do things her way without being challenged by people’s opinions.
Princess Pigsty, Cornelia Funke
In Princess Pigsty, Funke once again creates a heroine looking for adventure and independence. Princess Isabella is one of three sisters who have everything done for them, all of the time. She is bored and not happy. Isabella wants to get dirty and pick her own nose. She wants to bathe in the fish pond. So she does and leaves her crown in the pond. When her father demands she fetch it and act like a princess, Isabella refuses. Her punishment is first to work in the kitchen, then to tend to the pigs. But the work is not punishment at all. Isabella learns where her food comes from and how it is made; she learns the meaning of hard work and the value of education. The king eventually sees how happy Isabella is and returns her crown to her, accepting her for the unconventional princess she is.
The Worst Princess, Anna Kemp
Anna Kemp uses funny and rhyming text to tell the story of Princess Sue in The Worst Princess. Sue had read all of the books about what a princess needs to live happily ever after. She was bored to tears waiting for her prince, but when he finally arrives she realizes her fairy tale life is not what it was cracked up to be. She soon realizes her prince is a “twit” who rather keep her locked in a tower than let her lead a life of freedom and adventure. After befriending a dragon, the princess burns down the tower. After the mess she makes of herself and the royal grounds, the prince declares her the worst princess ever. She and the dragon leave the kingdom to make mischief and live happily ever after.
Not Every Princess, Jeffery Bone and Lisa Bone
Husband and wife Jeffery and Lisa Bone are writers, psychologists, and parents to two girls. Using gorgeous illustrations by Valeria Docampo, Jeffery and Lisa’s Not Every Princess stretches the imagination and celebrates the freedom and beauty of going beyond gender norms. It is a reminder that girls can be tough, boys can be sensitive, and anything in between is just fine, as long as you are being true to yourself.
In a stand-up special, Sarah Silverman said, “Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. I think it’s a mistake. Not because they can’t, but because it would’ve never occurred to them they couldn’t.” Yes, our girls should grow up with this understanding. Of course they can be anything, even princesses. However, to truly give our girls the keys to the kingdom, we need to give them the skills to unlock the door. Strength, independence, confidence, and happiness are some of these skills. The books I mentioned above show examples of girls and women who are worth emulating.