Monday, June 16, 2008

Princesses With Less Pink

My girl has become a princess freak. Me, not so much. I never really was that kind of girly girl, and often, I find the original takes on fairy tales a bit gruesome or scary for her to need just yet, while the modern takes on them frequently make my skin crawl a little. So I tend to tell her my own version, somewhere up the middle, for many of the classic stories, or work hard to find a version that works for both of us.

Still, I like the subvert it a little, partly for my own amusement and partly so she sees you don't have to take this stuff at face value. Not everyone has the same dreams, sometimes those dreams turn out to be less terrific in reality, and sometimes, you just have to be able to laugh. Some of these books are about that sort of approach. Some of them just show a princess with more going on than average - a princess who saves the day is not your standard pink-spangled fare, but it certainly makes me way more willing to let princesses be the fantasy of choice, when princess does not necessarily equal passive.

For all the other moms who hate the princesses who primp and wait for their prince, here are a few you can turn to to show there are different models out there.

The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch, ill. Michael Martchenko

This is, of course, the best known alternative princess, and an early one. She's still great, though, and a lot of fun. Kids love this story of a princess who has a bad day, in which she loses everything, including her prince. Donning the only thing she can find - a most unfoufy paper bag - she sets out to save him, outsmarting a dragon in the process. But is he grateful? Oh, heck no. And she sees right through him and his finery, and leaves him where she found him. Good girl.

Princess Smartypants, by Babette Cole

Smartypants just wants to be left alone to live with her animals - a vile collection of monsters if ever there was one - but because she was smart and pretty, all sorts of annoying princes keep turning up to try to marry her. Eventually, she sees she will have to do something, sets some tasks that scare most of them off, and thinks she is done with the hassle. Not so - Prince Swashbuckle is pretty smart himself, and manages to keep up. Until she turns him into a toad, that is, and gets to live happily ever after - with just her pets for company. Fans of Cole's typically quirky but hilarious style will not be disappointed by this one.

The Balloon Tree, by Phoebe Gilman

The princess in this Canadian favourite is a young girl whose father (the king) goes away for a while and leaves her nasty uncle to run the kingdom, despite Leora's trepidation. Sure enough, the evil archduke plots of takeover as soon as the king is gone, and it is up to Leora to save the day, with the help of her wizard friend's spell. With persistence, smarts, and will (as well as that helpful magic), she alerts her father to the danger in time for him to return home and set things to rights. Pumpkinpie loves this one, and the illuminated style makes it a beauty.

The Gypsy Princess, by Phoebe Gilman

In another, lesser-known tale by Gilman, a young gypsy girl dreams of becoming a princess, quite in love with all the trappings. When she enchants a real princess and is taken to the court, she finds that the excitement wears off quickly, and she begins to chafe under the weight heavy gown and tight slippers and the lack of anticipated magic. Indeed, her old life seems magic now, and one morning, she slips out, sheds her newly acquired princess-y ways along the road, and finds her way back home, where she belongs. It is something of a country mouse, city mouse scenario, but works nicely to show that even the most glittery and appealing things are not always what they seem.

Atalanta's Race

This myth is one of many parts, and far too dense for a preschooler if you look at the versions found in the mythology section. Indeed, in those more complete versions, she also allows herself to be tricked by her suitor with help from Aphrodite), and loses the race by one step. This surprised me a bit, raised as I was on the Free To Be, You and Me version, but I do still like that she insists on choosing her suitor by her own method, and then opts to lose to him when she finds that she wants him to win. Still, in suggesting this one, I am pointing you towards the young-child-friendly Free To Be version, which can be found in the big book of that title, along with tons of other great stereotype-busting skits, poems, and songs. There is plenty of time for the lnoger, meatier version as they grow older.

Princess Stinky-Toes and the Brave Frog Robert, by Leslie Elizabeth Watts

Lunetta is doomed from birth to be eaten by a dragon when she turns ten - a deal with a witch, as you might have guessed. At age nine, she begins to despair, but meets a knight-turned-frog who promises to help her, since he can only break his own spell by saving a life. He instructs her not to bathe. Not ever. So that by the time she turns ten, the princess now known as Stinky-toes is a pretty foul little creature - so foul, the dragon won't touch her, and eats the witch, instead. And Robert? He turns back into a knight, and proves himself worthy by telling Lunetta he likes her even more for her ability to choose the unpopular option. In the end, she takes a bath, to everyone's delight. No, no marriage. She's only ten, after all, and this isn't actually the middle ages. Funny, with a few little nods to fairy tale classics, this is a great tale of turning the princess thing on its head and a new Pumpkinpie favourite. The only problem? If you have a reluctant bather, this might give her the perfect reason to avoid the tub. Just in the spirit of fair warning and all.

Princesses Are Not Quitters!, by Kate Lum, ill. Sue Hellard

A trio of princesses are bored, and decide to trade places with the palace servants one day. By early afternoon, they are worn ragged by their chores, but do not want to be quitters, so they keep going through the many afternoon chores and just as many evening chores. By midnight, they fall into bed exhausted, and sleep late the next day. Seeing the servants at work, then, they know how their backs and hands and feet must ache from working hard ay in and day out, and decide to change the work conditions in the kingdom. To pick up the slack that this would leave, they take part in the work themselves - they are, after all, no quitters. This group of most un-princess-y princesses is a delight, with cute illustrations of gorgeous old-style princess gowns, generous spirits, and a lesson in persistence given with a fun twist. I love it.

Willa the Wonderful, by Susan Milord

When she is researching a class paper on her occupation of choice, Willa, a young pig, decides to try out first-hand what it would be like to be a fairy princess, her dream job. She dresses the part, and tries all day to make good things happen, but it's harder than she expects, and the results are less than satisfying. It's not until the end, when she rescues a classmate's younger brother, that she manages to both accomplish a good task and earn some recognition for her attempts. Turns out it's not so easy to be a proper fairy princess, but helping other people is worth it. Which, when told in a cute story like this, is a moral I can swallow, being both sugar coated and not hammered down my throat.

Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude, by Kevin Hawkes with additional illustrations by Carol Heyer and Scott Goto

When a boy and girl are assigned to write a fairy tale together, they have very different ideas of how things should go, and as they take turns telling it, it takes a few twists along the path. As the two start to become competitive, the results get pretty funny, and in the end, they have cobbled together something they (mostly) agree upon by teaming up their heroes. So what happens? Well, once the princess's ponies are getting stolen by an evil giant and several princes are defeated by him, a cool motorcycle dude takes over security at the castle and is beating the giant, but meanwhile, the princess buffs up and joins the fight, and the two scare him off together before they fall in love and get married. This illustrations in this are part fairy-tale pink, part awesome-action-hero dark, and part cartoon-style renderings of the arguing kids superimposed over the illustrated action. It's hilarious, and has great appeal for an older kid - I'd say most kids would be at least 6 years old before they'd really get it, maybe even older, but when they do? They'll love it. In fact, I may have broken the quiet of a late afternoon at the library lately by cackling madly as I read it. Maybe.

Princess Backwards, by Jane Gray, ill. Liz Milkau

This is a short and simple stroy about a princess who lives in a crazy land where everyone does everything backwards, but because she does them the opposite, they think she is backwards. Got that? But one day, her "weirdness" comes in handy, because while the others are running around backwards, tripping, and trying to shoot arrows over their shoulders, she strides right up to the dragon and throws a bucket of water in his face to put out his fire before he can burn up the drawbridge. And the dragon? Is thrilled. His mouth has been burning, you see, and he couldn't do anything about it! So the dragon is no longer a threat, the princess has saved the day wtih her strange ways, the two become friends, and she teaches the archers to shoot frontwards, making them far more efective. All in all, turns out that different is good. Not the most shining example of storytelling, but definitely short and simple enough for the younger princess enthusiast to enjoy, and containing just enough silliness for the older ones.

Princess Furball, by Charlotte Huck, ill. Anita Lobel

A young princess is lonely, having lost her mother and being largely ignored by her father. Her nurse, however, taught her well in both the more practical arts of the servants and the finer ways of a lady, such that she grew up to be both clever and resourceful, as well as beautiful. This all came in handy when her father wished to marry her off to an ogre -she demanded bridal gifts that she thought he could not produce. He did, however, and at that, she ran off. She soon found herself a servant to the servants in another king's house, but cleverly endeavoured to reveal herself slowly over time to the king until he fell in love with her, and was happy to "catch" her at her game. This ends more conventionally, wtih a marriage, as it is indeed related to a few traditional folk tales, including Cinderella, Catskin, and Many Furs, but Furball's willingness to work hard and her resourcefulness make her stand out in a crowd of standard princess tales.

Find these and other fantastic fairy tales at your local public library!

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

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