WHY ALL THE PRINCESSES?
The proliferation of princesses in stories for children is partly explained by Maria Nikolajeva in Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature:
A structural approach to formulaic fiction, presented by John G. Cawelti (1976, 91), singles out four roles in a detective story: the victim, the criminal, the detective, and those threatened by the crime but incapable of solving it. These roles correspond to Propp’s characters of princess, villain, hero and false hero. … Traditional children’s fiction is unmistakably plot oriented. It is commonly believed that young readers are more interested in plot than in characters, as compared with adult readers. Since myths and folktales are conditioned by plot, operating with flat and static characters, early children’s books, imitating folk narratives, also concentrated on the plot, mainly exploring characters to clarify the morals of the story.
So the princess trope is as useful as any other kind of trope.
PRINCESSES AND GIRLHOOD
The princess has become a symbol of naive girlhood. Ian McEwan uses the concept to illustrate a point about Briony, who is 12 or 13, on the point of adolescence when she can slip between childishness and adult precociousness in a moment. McEwan describes a defining moment in her transition to adulthood:
No more princesses! The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel — all this would have to be reconsidered. With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.
— Atonement, p113-114.
So ‘princess’ forms the opposite of the elemental, the brutal, the criminal and the dark.
There is definitely a princess backlash going on, and in modern books for children, princesses are likely to be the subversive kind: They may well wear a crown and live in a castle, but they’ll be autonomous, “tom-boyish”, cheeky, irreverent. Some of these princess stories have a definite moral of their own: Little girls don’t have to be submissive and like pink. Or more universally: You don’t have to be behave in the way society expects you to behave.
Here is Mighty Girl’s collection of strong, independent fictional princesses.
Other picturebook authors employ the princess trope for reasons which are not entirely clear to me — perhaps based on the idea that little girls are drawn to princess culture and will therefore be drawn to their book.
NOT ALL PRINCESSES DRESS IN PINK BY JANE YOLEN & HEIDI E.Y. STEMPLE ILLUSTRATED BY ANN-SOPHIE LANGUETIN
This is the first picture book I’ve seen in a while which has been worked on by three people — two authors as well as an illustrator. I guess a lot of women and girls would relate to this story; I do too, as I remember hating pink when I was about six through adolescence. This was nothing to do with pink itself, which did nothing wrong, and everything to do with going against what society thought I should be wearing/playing with/interested in.
These days my feelings about the pinkification of everything are rather more complex.
There now exists a type of children’s book which is a backlash against the pinkification of girlhood. This book is one such example. Although pink is the symbol of all that it means to be a ‘proper girl’, it goes further than that. Of course I want my daughter to get the message that she doesn’t have to conform to any special to any stereotype of feminine roles. As depicted in this book, girls can get dirty playing football, look badass pitching a baseball, wear practical rather than pretty shoes and fix things with power drills.
In other words, this is a celebration of tomboy-hood. (I have an issue with the word ‘tomboy’, but no other word is good.)
I don’t see any shortage of these sorts of stories, important as they are for the tomboys of this world. But girls, at least in this culture, are usually highly rewarded for doing traditionally male things such as science, mathematics and engineering. Girls are also applauded for playing rough-and-tumble games, at least until they become women, because although society is comfortable with watching ‘girls’ play sport, we’re not all that happy about watching ‘women’ play rough. Even in early childhood, few parents would chastise their daughters for playing with ‘boys’ toys’. This reflects the fact that male is still the default and the dominant, and so a girl who acts like a boy isn’t giving away any of her power by playing male roles.
What I do see a shortage of are picture books which celebrate dabbling in the feminine for little boys. That’s not to say that such books don’t exist; they may do. I just haven’t seen any. It’s time more parents accepted gender blurring activities for their little boys as well as for their little girls.
PRINCESS POPPY TWINKLETOES BY JANEY LOUISE JONES
The cover shows a picture of an ordinary girl (albeit with long blond hair) wearing a riding helmet and petting the mane of a horse. So far so good. She looks ready for some sort of activity, and it looks like she’s going to be doing something useful or fun involving horses and not sitting around preening herself, waiting for her prince.
The aim of this story is to foster care of others, and especially care of animals, because Princess Poppy ends up taking care of a pony which has been found wild in the hills. Feminine attributes are celebrated, without any overt Tomboyish ironic statement about princesses and how pathetic they are. That said, I find the dialogue saccharine: ‘”Aw, that pony is soooooo sweet!” cried Poppy.’
Except this is a My Little Pony kind of horse obsession, in which the pony is groomed, gently, and although some riding takes place, we have the usual heavy emphasis on what the female characters look like. ‘As the girls entered the stable block, they spotted two sets of beautiful riding clothes that Daisy had grown out of. They changed into jodhpurs, riding jackets with velvet collars, and shiny black boots. “And choose a hat!” said Daisy, pointing to rows of little wooden shelves, each containing hard hats in black, brown and navy blue.’ (Would a horse story for boys list all the different colours of hat?) ‘When they arrived back at the paddock, Mum and Granny Bumble were there too and everyone told Poppy and Honey how smart they looked.’
Note this use of ‘smart’ is in reference to their clothing, not to their riding smarts. This is hardly a story about girl power. ‘David helped Poppy into the saddle.’ On the final page: ‘”You are a perfect little princess — you didn’t give up.” said Mum. This is a good message, giving up. Except I don’t feel as if enough time has passed in the story for it to be a story about perseverance. In order for that one to work, we’d have to see the perfect little princess a year later, diligently grooming and feeding her new pony without being reminded by her mother.
EMILY AND THE EAST OAK TREE BY AMANDA BRIGGS AND JAN WADE
I’m increasingly suspicious of books with glitter stuck to the pages. I’ve yet to meet a good one.
I have no idea when this book was created because it entirely lacks a colophon. I only notice this because I had the task of cataloguing it for preschool over summer. This job alerted me to another big problem with underfunding of preschools: a lot of the books they’ve gathered over the years seem to have been donated by former students, with no curation whatsoever. Our preschool is private (there is no public alternative), and as a non-profit instutition fees are kept as low as possible. There are no decent funds for books. A lot of the books are from the 1970s. The teachers buy their own books if they want modern and enlightened. This isn’t good enough.
The opening sentence alienates me somewhat: ‘It was Christmas Eve and Emily was all alone. She had no brothers or sisters to play with, and her parents had been made to work.’ I’m a parent of an only child (by choice) and the author seems to have an agenda, reinforced overleaf:
‘Haven’t you got any brothers or sisters to play with?’
Emily shook her head miserably.
‘How dreadful,’ said the fairy. ‘Everyone should have someone to play with.’
This reminds me of comments I’ve had such as, ‘Don’t you feel sorry for her?’ and ‘Children need brothers and sisters for playmates’ and ‘What about after you’re dead and gone?’ and ‘But if — god forbid — something happens to your only child you won’t be a mum anymore.’ Yes, people actually say these things.
Likewise, children’s authors should be wary of expressing their personal views on lifestyle choices. Even if it’s purely accidental, it’s still not good enough to get all judgey on parents who have to work Christmas Eve (a class issue) and parents who choose to have fewer than two children.
Moving on, this isn’t a good story in other ways. First, it doesn’t need to be a Christmas story at all. It’s not about Christmas, and there is nothing Christmassy about it. The only reason I can think of for the author to have set the story on a Christmas Eve is to engender more sympathy for Emily All Alone. But the problem with introducing Christmas in the first sentence and then not coming back to it until the very last is that this confuses genres in an ad hoc sort of way. This is a fairy story reminiscent of the Enid Blyton era.
The problem with re-creating 1940s style fairy stories is that it’s all too easy to reproduce outdated gender stereotypes. When Emily first encounters the fairy, the fairy speaks harshly (for no good reason other to drum up some conflict, I suspect — the same thing that annoys me in films and novels ). Emily starts to cry. It is only after Emily starts to cry that the fairy softens and takes Emily under her wing. I’m not sure about all the other parents of preschoolers out there, but teaching children not to burst out crying whenever they don’t get what they want takes some years of concerted effort, so I don’t need this modelled in picturebooks.
As for the plot, the dilemma in the story is that Princess Ruber (the colour red) can’t marry Prince Caeruleus (the colour blue) because if they do, they’ll each lose their colour. I’m not sure if this is meant to be saying something about intermarriage — I’m sure I’d be well advised to stay well clear of reading any subtext into it. In the end, the two do get married and become the colour purple. So children learn, if they haven’t already, that blue plus red equals purple and it turns into a mini art lesson.
It’s the other lessons they might also learn which concerns me.
A list of positive princesses in picturebooks from No Time For Flashcards
Reminder that the book Princess Academy is actually very good from BloomsburyUS Kids/YA