More on princesses (a long post with lots of book lists)

March 16, 2012

N and I talked a bit about princesses a couple of nights ago. I wish we could have talked more because while he teased out a lot of what I was thinking, I’m not sure where he stands on princesses as crazily marketed phenomena, or as blue-blooded realities, or as role models. And I’m curious. I think that, as a daddy, he has fond and positive associations with the word princess. As the daddy of a rainbow baby, I expect these associations may be heightened.

And I don’t want to be unreasonably anti-princess in spite of my knee-jerk reactions, which tend to reveal my inner anti-monarchist. So I’ve been thinking, as I often do, with the help of books. And there are many (many!) children’s books that I love that broaden definitions of girlhood and women by using ideas and images of princesses. So, I came up with a list of my top princess books so far. It’s incomplete and I’m sure I’ve missed some really great ones, but this is a good place for me to start thinking about what I like about princesses.

For little readers & listeners

  • The Paper Bag Princess (Thanks for the reminder, Loribeth!), which is awesome and contains the immortal line, “Ronald, your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.”
  • Sleeping Ugly, by Jane Yolen (more about Jane Yolen later on). This is a great early reader book, funny and sweet and sly without being didactic.

Some of my favorite traditional tales featuring princesses in picture book form

Pedantic Librarian Note: Sometimes we think that all picture books are suitable for very young readers, but many are aimed at older readers. You know yourself and your child best, and you want to bring that knowledge to the library or bookstore, perhaps especially when looking at traditional fairy tale picture books, which are often full of romantic love, loss (parents, children, siblings), and/or violence. And it’s not just the text. Emotionally-resonant artwork is an amazing thing, but look through a book and make sure you’re ready for it.

  • Beauty and the Beast, by Marianna and Mercer Mayer. Lots of text, but the illustrations are so beautiful and powerful that they can still bring tears to my eyes.
  • East of the Sun and West of the Moon, translated from the Norwegian by George Webbe Dasent and illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Mistakes and journeys are made. There is a lot of text but also a shape-shifting polar bear, scary trolls, and the Lynch’s watercolor illustrations are magic.
  • Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, by John Steptoe. (This is based on a traditional tale, but as far as I can ascertain is largely one of Steptoe’s creation. I put it in this list because if has a lot of the same feel and themes as traditional picture book re-tellings.) The artwork is incredible, and the story is quietly complex and refreshingly portrays both girls as beautiful even though only one is kind.
  • Rapunzel, by Paul Zelinsky. Gorgeously and faithfully rendered. The artwork is in the style of the Italian Renaissance, warm and formal without being stiff. The story is here in all its brutality, and it’s not an easy story to read, but it’s full of hope and warmth and love at the same time. I especially enjoyed seeing Rapunzel’s faithful cat appear in page after page.
  • Yeh-Shen:  A Cinderella Story from China, by Ai-Ling Louie and Ed Young. This brings out a lot of the best of the Cinderella story. Hard work is rewarded and the friendship of Yeh-Shen and the magical fish is somehow very touching as well as, you know, magical.

Books about real princesses

  • The Redheaded Princess: A Novel, by Ann Rinaldi, this is a book about the early life of Queen Elizabeth I.
  • Girl in a Cage, by Jane Yolen, who has a gift for finding interesting female historical figures and bringing them to light. This is the story of Princess Marjori, daughter of Robert the Bruce, who was kept on display by King Edward Longshanks.

For older readers

  • A Little Princess, by France Hodgson Burnett, because Sarah Crewe is one of the most lovable characters ever to grace the pages of fiction, though part of me will always love cranky Mary Lennox best. I’m looking forward to Dot being old enough to enjoy this one. I also like the way that Sarah finds strength in her own ideas of what a princess is and does.
  • The Beggar Queen, by Lloyd Alexander, though I feel like even mentioning that this is a princess book is spoilery. This is the first in a series that ends up with a country ruled by a monarchy undergoing revolution and becoming a republic, but the female lead is resourceful and unforgettable.
  • Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, was crazily popular among pre-teen readers for a reason. This Cinderella, cursed with obedience (can you imagine?), navigates the difficulties of boarding school, enchanted forests, and her own family, and befriends giants, elves, and fairies along the way to saving her prince.
  • Beauty, and Rose Daughter, both by Robin McKinley, are favorite comfort books of mine. Beauty features a protagonist who is a bookworm with a loyal and trusting horse that is the kind of horse every girl who loves horses wishes she could have. Rose Daughter is a different take on the story and equally as magical, with a strong emphasis on gardening and roses, and my favorite ever spin on the ending to this tale. McKinley writes amazing princesses. Also highly recommended are Spindle’s End, The Hero and the Crown, and Pegasus.


I find these especially useful when I think of telling stories. These are great sources for inspiration, especially as I try to recognize how much my background is skewed toward Western stories.

  • Allyn & Bacon Anthology of Traditional Literature, edited by Judith V. Lechner
  • Beauties and Beasts, edited by my storytelling mentor, Betsy Hearne, who does amazing work in getting people to look at and think about children’s literature and traditional tales in thoughtful ways and who probably knows more about Beauty and the Beast than anyone in the world.
  • Not One Damsel in Distress, edited by Jane Yolen & illustrated by Susan Guevara
  • Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys, edited by Jane Yolen. This is a collection of tales that emphasize male protagonists who triumph with wit instead of physical strength or fighting, and is maybe out of place on a princess list. But this kind of story doesn’t get enough attention, and if Teddy were here, I’d want to read these to him.

I feel a bit better about princesses now. For one thing, a lot of these books treat the idea of what it means to be a princess in very nuanced ways, with an emphasis on responsibility, courage, and resourcefulness, all good traits to cultivate. Sarah Crewe’s bravery in the face of her cold and rat-infested attic is enough to make me remember the many positive things that princesses represent. As a more tentative consideration, I can’t help but think that, after getting access to some of the really gorgeous artwork and storytelling out there, maybe Dot will be somewhat inoculated to at least some of the ways princesses are used to sell things (and ideas) to girls. Maybe. Hopefully. We’ll see.

My new to-read list:

I found several interesting lists (many from library sites) of princess books, and as my own list is short on selections for kids Dot’s age, I’m going to be making some trips to the library this weekend to take a look at some of these:

Whew. That’s a lot of links. If you have a favorite princess book (or books), let me know!



  1. I loved princesses when I was a little girl. My favorite game was playing dress up, and I’d belt my nightgowns and pretend to be Snow White. But I totally get your reaction and imagine I’d feel the same way as the mother of a little girl. I’ll have to ask my husband how he feels about this. I love your book list and I’m filing away the titles for someday…

  2. Thanks. We’re not really into princesses here right now, but we have been into fairy tales lately, so perhaps its coming. This looks like a great list. The only non-princessy princess story I can think of is from Free to Be You and Me. I think it’s called Atalanta.

  3. Also place marking again until I have more time to reflect. Robin McKinley’s ‘Beauty’ is one of my favourite books ever. I had always thought that ‘Rose Daughter’ was an alternative title for the same book?! Now I see it isn’t? So excited! Love ‘Spindle’s End’ too. Do you like Gregory Maguire’s re-imaginings. Not so much the infamous ‘Wicked’ but more ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister’?

    Sure I’ve asked you this before but have you read Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘The Uses of Enchantment?’ I love fairy tales and this an interesting examination of them. And ‘From the Beast of the Blonde’ and ‘Wonder Tales’ ? I found both fascinating.

    Ach princesses and fairy tales still preoccupy me and I’m nearly 33 years old! What chance to J and B stand?!

    Will be back to harp on at length no doubt!

  4. Great post. I loved The Paper Bag Princess as a kid and recently bought a copy for Juliet (where did all my old books get to, mum??)
    Will have to bookmark this one for a future read though!

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