Last Christmas, my friend Ashlee gave my daughter The Paper Bag Princess. Her inscription explained it was one of her favorite books, and “one of the only princess books a girl needs." I had never read the story before, but Ashlee is a kind, generous, and strong woman, so her words carry weight. I couldn’t wait to read the book with my daughter.
Almost a year later, The Paperbag Princess is one of our favorite stories - possibly because I do a pretty mean dragon impression - but I like to think it’s also because Elizabeth, the story’s heroine, is a resourceful and intelligent character who cares for her loved ones as much as she cares for herself.
In Elizabeth, Munsch creates a woman who doesn’t rely on looks, instead outwitting the dragon by using his own ego against him. After risking her life to save the prince, she refuses to be disrespected by him, asserting independence and recognizing that her worth does not lie in her outward appearance.
This is no ordinary princess story.
I’ve never been a fan of the traditional princess narrative; as a child, I didn’t want to be called “princess.” I didn’t realize Ariel and Jasmine were even princesses at all; rather, I was more excited that Jasmine had a tiger for a pet, Ariel appreciated other cultures enough to create her own museum, and Belle had access to more books than I had ever seen. No fairy-tale wedding or princess dress for me - the perfection attached there makes me nervous. I can’t handle the stress of falling short of those expectations. Plus, standard princess narratives fetishize the idea that women need saving by men, thus reinforcing a dangerous gender stereotype.
I want my daughter to know that she can work hard and do anything she wants to do, without being limited by others’ expectations of her female body. In fact, I’m still working to learn this truth myself. Who knew being a parent would shine a light on all your insecurities and make you want to work fifteen times as hard to ensure that your child won’t struggle with the same things?
In these blog posts, we usually discuss literature with a capital “L”, but I love children’s books too. The great ones help us teach our children important lessons while inspiring them to imagine a more beautiful world than what the news depicts.