Princesses in children’s literature are a fraught topic. There has been a strong backlash against the glittery, pink-washed stories of passive princesses who wait in towers — objects to be won by daring knights. Yet many children are drawn to princess stories, and who wants to stop children from reading anything they are excited about?
Most of us were raised on stories about princesses. From the darkness of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson fairytales, to the gentler Disney versions, these stories are an inescapable part of our culture. Fortunately, there are now many fantastic picture books that challenge the conventional roles of princesses in stories, creating characters that are like us and that inspire us to dare and dream. Listed below are some of my favourites. They are sure to appeal to princess-loving children and their princessed-out parents alike!
1. The Paper Bag Princess
Written by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, first published in 1980
Princess Elizabeth’s life is all mapped out. She already has a castle and beautiful dresses and she is destined to marry Prince Ronald. But when a dragon destroys her home and her clothes and kidnaps the prince, she sets out to rescue him. Dressed in a humble paper bag, she outsmarts the dragon and is reunited with Prince Ronald, only to discover that he may not be quite so charming after all.
First published in 1980, this picture book has become a classic. Its enduring appeal lies in the reversal of traditional fairytale archetypes. Here, the prince is the one who needs to be saved, the dragon can be defeated through superior wit rather than violence, and the princess shapes her own story and becomes the hero.
2. The Worst Princess
Written by Anna Kemp, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie, published in 2012 by Simon and Schuster
Princess Sue is trapped in a tower waiting to be rescued by a prince. But things take an unconventional turn when she decides the prince is dull and that she would much rather go on adventures with the dragon.
With it’s swingy rhythm and witty rhymes, this book should be fun to read over and over again until you have it memorised. The bright, cartoonish images have some of the spiky quality of Quentin Blake’s classic illustrations, which perfectly capture the rebellious, riotous, rollicking feel of the story. You really get the sense that this is a princess who is sick of waiting for anyone to rescue her. She is almost always pictured in movement, going somewhere, doing something, acting to change her fate. Princess Sue breaks free of the confines of her story, writing it anew. She smashes the glass turret and sets out on adventures as an independent princess — with a friendly dragon, of course!
3. The Princess and the Pony
Written and illustrated by Kate Beaton, published in 2015 by Walker Books
Princess Pinecone dreams of being a fierce warrior, so she needs a noble steed to ride into battle. However, for her birthday her parents give her a tiny, rotund and flatulant pony instead. At first disappointed by her present, Princess Pinecone tries to make the most of the situation and discovers that the pony has some unique talents. Along the way, she learns that even the strongest and most fearsome warriors have a warm and fuzzy side.
Kate Beaton is known for her webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, which often focuses on historical and literary topics. Beaton’s style translates into an intelligent, humorous and adorable picture book. The illustrations are packed full of details that will keep kids and parents entertained after many readings.
4. Olivia and the Fairy Princesses
Written and illustrated by Ian Falconer, published in 2012 by Simon and Schuster
Olivia is a precocious, opinionated and spirited little pig suffering from an identity crisis. When her father makes an off-hand comment that she’s ‘his little princess’, she begins a tirade about the problems with princesses. A fervent individualist, she laments the deplorable sameness of princesses, pointing out that all her friends only want to be fairy princesses with pink tutus and tiaras, instead of drawing inspiration from princesses all around the world. If everyone wants to be one, then, she reasons, being a princess isn’t special anymore. So she embarks on an inner quest to figure out what she wants to be.
The minimalist illustrations are rendered in Olivia’s signature colour palette of red, white and black, accented here with a dose of pink. Cleverly incorporated photographs lend a sophisticated look to this picture book. Olivia is the star of eleven eponymous picture books to date. This is her latest outing, but it would make an excellent introduction to the series.
5. The Secret Lives of Princesses
Written by Philippe Lechermeier and illustrated by Rébecca Dautremer, published in 2010 by Hodder Children’s Books
These are the princesses that classic fairytales forgot. Not a story so much as an encyclopaedia, this is a book to dip into when you want to meet a new princess, with her own unique passions and skills.
These princesses hail from all over the world and are defined by their interests and pursuits. The book also contains useful tips for dealing with princesses, curious facts about sulking seats, and a quiz that will tell you what kind of princess you are (tender, whimsical or mysterious). This book is lyrically written and illustrated in an otherworldly style that will enchant readers and invite them to wonder and dream.
Have you read any of these books? Let us know if you have a favourite princess story that hasn’t made it onto this list!