Kickin’ Princesses

Elizabeth Bluemle - August 7, 2013

(Before anyone thinks I’m advocating violence, I’m using “kickin'” as an adjective here, not a verb.)
A friend of mine came to the store at the beginning of summer. Lena, a lifelong tomboy and athlete and now mother of two sons, found herself in charge of a Princess Ballerina summer camp for little girls. After I got done laughing (mostly), we set about finding some books about princesses that wouldn’t make her want to strangle herself with pink tulle.
A Babette Cole fan from childhood, Lena already knew and loved Princess Smartypants. We pulled out Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess. Kate Duke’s Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One (the plucky mouse heroine isn’t a princess, but she rescues and befriends a prince whose parents initially thought her too scruffy to be a suitable playmate for their son), Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson and Kevin O’Malley, and The Emperor and the Kite, by Jane Yolen and Ed Young. I wanted to give her Katrin Tchana and Trina Schart Hyman’s gorgeous The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women, which was a staple at the store for years, but it’s gone out of stock indefinitely. (A true shame.) We were able to recommend the glorious Sense Pass King: A Story from Cameroon by those two (still in print!). Lena picked a bunch of books and reported that the week-long camp and its read-alouds went well.
It’s been several weeks since the princess ballerinas disbanded for other summer activities, but I got a text from Lena this afternoon. “How about this?” she said. “One of my little princess ballerinas came in today to say hello and had this to say: ‘The best part of summer was ballerina camp because there was dancing and books about girls without husbands.’ I think she was talking about Princess Smartypants.” That cracked me up! I loved that a little girl — one who had signed up for princess ballerina camp, by the way, so a self-selecting fan of all things princess — liked the strong girl characters in the books she read.
In writing this post, I looked for some other books that might fit the bill for my friend’s next Princess Ballerina summer camp, and came across these titles, which I haven’t yet seen but sound promising: Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots? by Carmela LaVigna Coyle, Don’t Kiss the Frog! Princess Stories with Attitude compiled by Fiona Waters and illustrated by Ella Burfoot (whose name belongs in a Cinderella retelling of her own), Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, by Jane Yolen, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, and Anne-Sophie Lanquetin, and Princesses Are Not Quitters! and Princesses Are Not Perfect by Kate Lum and Sue Hellard. 
I’m not trying to spoil the joys of princessdom here. I loved pink as a little girl (shell pink and shocking HOT pink only, though; not toy pink or the other sickly shades) and always secretly wanted a tiara;. I adored beautiful dresses and fluffy tutus. Heck, I even tried to trade in on my first name and its link to British royalty to get out of chores. (“Queens don’t work!” I announced to my grandparents one morning when I was six, had just learned about Elizabeth I, and had been asked to make my bed before coming to breakfast. Sadly, my regal status was not acknowledged and I was forced to smooth and fold and fluff the bedding as usual.)
So while I don’t want to suck the joy out of the fancy dresses and parties that little princess fans love so well, isn’t it great to expand their definition of what a princess is? After all, real princesses do real work and seek fulfilling lives beyond the wedding veil. So I’m all eyes, folks: What other great strong-girl princess stories can you recommend?

17 thoughts on “Kickin’ Princesses

  1. Brianna

    Though she’s not officially a princess, Ella from Ella Enchanted is one of my favorite female characters. Even now as a twenty-something, I still read that book at least once a year. I also LOVE seeing Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One on this list–I love that book, but it’s not very well known!

  2. Kat Brokaw

    Can’t think princess without the Enchanted Forest Chronicles… my daughter LOVED those stories so much, both for the sensible princess and the wonderfully named cats!… we read that series over, and over, and over again… until she was old enough to read George RR Martin, really…

  3. Jon

    I bought my niece It’s a Pain to be a Princess and she loves it! It’s a great story and beautifully illustrated!

  4. Liza Bernard

    The Ogre of Oglefort by Ibbotson
    O’Sullivan Stew by Hudson Talbott – not exactly princesses, an Irish tall tale with a very strong female who, when the prince proposes marriage on the second to last page, says “Oh, it’s funny you should ask me today Your Majesty. You see, I’ve just decided that after talking so much about the adventures of others it’s time that I go find some of my own.” and “If your offer is still good in five years’ time, you’ll know where to find me…”

  5. Summer Laurie

    Three more to add to the Indie Princess list…
    Dangerously Ever After by Dashka Slater!
    The Monster Princess by D.J. MacHale!
    Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke!

  6. Morgan

    Thank you so much for these recommendations! My five-year-old niece will start school this fall, and I can only assume that she’ll be drawn even more into “princess culture” by her peers than she was when she started preschool last year. I love the idea of encouraging that interest (since the last thing I want is for her to think her auntie disapproves of who she is and what she likes!) without at the same time discouraging her from being the very active, smart, curious, adventurous girl she is so far growing up to be.
    I had an “ack!” moment not to long ago, when my niece informed me that we were playing a game in which she was a princess and I was a superhero, and that I had to go out and do all the rescuing “because princesses stay home and take care of their pets”. (I tried to gently subvert that notion by suggesting that a person could be both a princess and a superhero, but alas, so far she’s not buying it.) So thank you very, very much for some awesome tools to use in my mission to help my niece grow up active, self-confident and happy. With luck, I’ll be playing “Princess Smartypants” with her in the not-too-distant future! 🙂

  7. Ellie Miller

    Not sure if it’s still in print, but before Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy hit big-time, he wrote another rather melodramatic, mid-Victorian trilogy about Sally Lockhart – very much in SteamPunk mode – and then added a spin-off novel called “The Tin Princess” which is an absolutely delightful read. It’s very much (if I’m not dating myself too badly) in a sort of Beverly of Graustark/Ruritanian vein where, Adelaide, his feisty Cockney heroine, becomes queen by default of a middle-European principality , and she and her two Londoner pals thwart bad guys planning a coup with kick-ass panache and style. I’d also like to put in a good word for F.H. Burnett’s Sara Crewe, “A Little Princess”. Somewhat dated, maybe, but I’ve always loved the way she made the best of her misfortunes and was loving and caring of those whom she saw as being even worse off than she was: still and always a princess even in rags.

  8. Lindsay Bellville

    One of my favorite topics! I love books which show girls you can be a princesses AND be strong. Some other great titles: Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer, Princess in Training by Tammi Sauer (which has a skateboard riding princess on the cover), Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke and The Knight Who Took all Day by James Mayhew in the vein of The Paper Bag Princess where the princess decides she doesn’t need the prince!

  9. gilibug

    I second the Patricia Wrede books. Jessica Day George has also written great plucky princesses in several of her books: “Tuesdays at the Castle”, “Princess of the Midnight Ball”, etc. “Castles in the Air” by Diana Wynne Jones is a sequel, but it has some of the best princesses ever, because they are real people. “Flora Segunda” by Ysabeau Wilce is not exactly a princess but almost. And then there’s the classic “The Princess and the Goblin” by George MacDonald. Jaclyn Moriarity’s “A Corner of White” is a highly unusual book for older readers, and the princesses are quite annoying for most of it, but there’s a surprise twist at the end that’s really worth it.

  10. Natasha Carter

    Check out Goosebottom Book’s, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses. Nonfiction, but great true-life stories of real princesses who accomplished great feats in the lifetimes.

  11. Beth

    The Very Fairy Princess series by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton shows that a girl can wear pink and all the trappings of a princess, while still being a strong, caring person. The main message of this series is to let one’s inner sparkle shine through. The authors also have a website for the series which lists over 70 real-life princesses and celebrates the hard work they do and all the good that they do. This shows kids that there’s more to being a princess than glittery clothes, but gets at the message in a way that appeals to kids.

  12. Ellen

    Jean Ferris’ books about Princess Marigold (Once Upon a Marigold, Twice Upon a Marigold, Thrice Upon a Marigold) – do include romance, but Marigold is plucky and resourceful. Also found Lois Lowry’s Birthday Ball to be a nice twist on the Prince and the Pauper. Janet Carey’s Dragon’s Keep is about a Princess in distress, who gets herself out of a fix.

  13. Maryann Cocca-Leffler

    Don’t forget- ‘Princess K.I.M And the Lie that Grew’, and “Princess Kim and Too Much Truth”, My two books published by ALbert Whitman…Is now a Children’s play with a Premiere in NH Oct 3-6, 2013.
    Any New England Princess Lovers…come see it.
    Maryann Cocca-Leffler Author/Illustrator

  14. Nancy

    It might be too advanced for younger girls, but my favorite princess book was “Journey for a Princess” by Margaret Leighton. It’s out of print now, but a treasure awaits anyone who finds it in a library.

  15. Kat Kan

    PRINCESS KNIGHT by Osamu Tezuka is a two-volume manga about Princess Sapphire, who has grown up pretending to be a boy because of the political situation in her country. I loved the anime series based on these books when I was much younger.
    PRINCELESS by Jeremy Whitley is an indie comic book series about Princess Adrienne, who rescues herself from the tower her royal father locked her in, partners with the dragon (a female) who guarded her tower, joins with a blacksmith girl, and sets out to rescue her sisters. The second volume has just recently been published. The girls in my school, particularly a third grader last year who called the first volume her favorite book, love this story.

  16. Kristen

    I love so many of the books mentioned here (especially many of the fiction/chapter books).
    As a public librarian who works with our Latino community, and plans a monthly bilingual storytime, I was pleased to find that there are also some great Spanish language princess picture books out there:
    “Que fastidio ser princesa!” by Carmen Gil: a princess doesn’t fit in with princess life; she runs away from home to find her niche–she tries several jobs, including being a knight and a pirate before she finds an occupation that brings her joy. Great illustrations, too!
    “La bella Griselda” by Isol turns the story of a stereotypical beautiful and self-absorbed princess on its head (literally). The book contains a lot of word play and puns that elementary school kids may enjoy and a complicated, (although creepy in the old tradition of fairy tales) happy ending.
    “Hay algo mas aburrido que ser una princesa rosa?” by Raquel Diaz Reguera is a book that I’ve ordered for the library but have yet to read. The title seems promising and the illustrations are quite nice. Translated title: Is there anything more boring than being a pink princess?

  17. Lynn

    Princess Pigtoria and the Pea by Pamela Edwards Duncan is a hoot. Princess Pigtoria sets out to get Prince Proudfoot to marry her so she can fix her broken-down castle. Proudfoot turns out to be a bit of a stinker, so she marries the Pizza delivery pig and starts her own pizza business.
    Falling for Rapunzel and Waking Beauty by Leah Wilcox also make me laugh.


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