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Posts Tagged ‘fairy tales’

This is the second post in my Precocious Princesses series, reviews of inspiring alternatives to traditional princess fairy tales.

The Apple-Pip Princess

by Jane Ray

Candlewick Press, 2007

32 pages

Inspiration is a funny thing.

It’s hard to come by, but highly contagious.  It has an inexorable power but works according to the choices of those who use it.

And just one spark of it can transform an ordinary person into a leader who changes lives, whole societies, even the world.

That’s the lesson learned by Princess Serenity in Jane Ray’s The Apple-Pip Princess.

Serenity is a princess in a nameless, blighted kingdom.  Once green and prosperous, her world has descended into drought and crippling poverty since her mother’s death.

Now her father is approaching the end of his life, and he gives Serenity and her two older sisters a test to determine which of them will succeed him as ruler: each girl gets a week to “make her mark,” to do something that makes him proud.

The older sisters, superficial and vain, build two tall towers to impress the king.  They use materials stripped from their impoverished subjects’ homes and imprison anyone who objects.

Serenity, meanwhile, retreats to a favorite place and pores over her inheritance from her mother: a simple wooden box containing natural treasures collected by the queen in childhood.

And, slowly, inspiration comes.  As Ray puts it, “the tiny seed of an amazing idea began to form in her mind.”

Using the queen’s treasures and the seeds from her breakfast fruit, Serenity plants and nourishes the first seedling trees her homeland has seen in years.

After five days of this work, she notices a village boy watching her.  She invites him to join her, and soon villagers everywhere are helping to plant groves and groves of trees.

The end result is the restoration of nature, prosperity, and fellowship throughout the kingdom–and, of course, the king’s choice of Serenity as his heir.

It’s a welcome change from the passive princess who waits for someone else to come along and rescue her.  Serenity actively reaches out for inspiration and does the back-breaking work of bringing it to fruition.

In the process, she saves not just herself but the entire kingdom.

There is so much here to inspire: Serenity’s simple faith in her mother’s legacy, her compassionate inclusion of the suffering villagers, and the multiplication of the princess’s heartfelt efforts.

Even better, Ray has managed to write a fable that is poetic but never trite.  The voice is familiar, warm, reverent.  The book teaches valuable lessons but never preaches.

And the storyline is intriguing–the first time I read the book, I kept wondering what would happen next.

What was Serenity going to do with the items in the box?  Would her plan actually work?  Would the king appreciate the outcome?

I love, too, that Ray (who is English) chose not to create yet another Renaissance-style, Anglo-Saxon princess.

Although the story’s setting is undefined, Ray’s paintings are reminiscent of Indian story-tapestries blended with Moroccan elements.

Every character is brown-skinned and dark-eyed; some wear yarmulke-style caps, others sport dreadlocks or close white curls.

And Ray makes a point that Serenity, although somewhat pretty, is “little and shy and quite ordinary.”

Inspiration, in other words, is no respecter of persons.

Whether you’re light-skinned or dark, young or old, dirt-poor or a privileged princess, you can find the spark that turns you into a leader–and make the choices that turn your leadership into something that inspires others.

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The Paper Bag Princess

by Robert Munsch; ill. by Michael Martchenko

Annick Press, 1992

32 pages

In honor of my first blogiversary, I’ve decided to do something every blogger has to do at some point or another: write a series.  I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it!

Princesses–they’re everywhere.

If you have regular contact with young girls, princesses are probably on your radar.  Even if said girls are royally indifferent, princesses are inescapable.

Every type of commodity that might possibly pass through the hands of young girls has a princess permutation.  Princesses are on girls’ clothing, dishes, school supplies, toys, bed linens . . .

And, of course, they’re in girls’ books. 

The fairy tale princess is probably the best recognized, and certainly one of the most pervasive, female archetypes in girls’ literature (especially literature for very young girls).

Which is unfortunate, since the average fairy tale princess is anything but inspiring.  Pretty, passive, delicate, and endangered, yes.  Inspiring, no.

So, what’s a savvy grownup to do?  Well, read this blog, for one thing (how’s that for a shameless plug?).  But, seriously, how do you break the archetype, especially if you’re dealing with a girl who really likes princesses?

Since I have a young daughter, I’ve asked myself the same question.  And this series is my answer.

I’m happy to say that, although inspiring princess books are somewhat scarce, they do exist, and for all ages.  I’m going to highlight some of my favorites, starting with Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess.

One of many stories Munsch invented to entertain day-care tots, The Paper Bag Princess is brilliant in its brevity.

This is the story of Elizabeth, who initially seems to be a typical fairy-tale princess.  She’s beautiful, rich, and besotted with her fiance, Ronald.

But when a dragon destroys all her possessions and carries off her prince, Elizabeth rises to the occasion.  With only a paper bag left to her name (hence the title), our heroine sets off on a quest to rescue Ronald.

She braves the wilderness, tricks the dragon, and saves the prince.  And, when Ronald proves to be more snooty than grateful, Elizabeth blithely calls him a bum and dances off into the sunset.

Characters aside, the story itself is very satisfying.  I love the way Munsch mixes up a variety of traditional story elements (faerie, the trickster, a quest) and then seasons everything with a dash of parody and sly humor.

There are twists around every corner, but they’re entertaining and energizing instead of unbelievable.  And Michael Martchenko does a fabulous job of communicating mood and personality through the characters’ facial expressions and body language.

But Elizabeth, of course, is the story’s piece de resistance She’s brave, persistent, crafty, and independent.

And best of all, she’s self-confident enough to recognize superficiality for what it is.  Her message for Ronald: treat me right, or don’t treat with me at all.

Not a bad lesson for little girls to learn.

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Child of Faerie, Child of Earth

by Jane Yolen; ill. by Jane Dyer

Little, Brown & Company, 1997

32 pages

For my generation of women, “balance” is a buzzword concept.

In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s an industry.  It would take me days to list all the books, blogs, articles, and other screeds that advise today’s women on the fine art of maintaining balance. Balance between work and play, home and family, needs of self and needs of others.

It’s a worthwhile idea.  Balance keeps us whole, keeps us operating as complete people.  When our lives fall out of balance, we lose parts of ourselves–our edge at work, our connections with family and friends, our health, even our sanity.

So it follows that we want our daughters (granddaughters, students, nieces) to find balance, too.  But how?

Child of Faerie, Child of Earth answers that question in a beautiful, understated way.

One of Jane Yolen and Jane Dyer’s lovely collaborations, this picture book is the story of a young girl who meets a faerie boy one Halloween.  The two have an immediate affinity for one another, and they spend the next 24 hours touring each other’s worlds.

Each tries earnestly, but in vain, to convince the other to switch worlds.  Ultimately, they find a compromise: they make a pact to remain friends and visit each other regularly.  And they follow through, so effectively and faithfully that they “left all skeptics flabbergast/At how they did so well.”

It’s a beautiful story, not least because of Yolen’s elegant, old-fashioned poetry and Dyer’s dreamy watercolors.

But the real beauty is in the way the girl achieves balance, both in her life and in her soul.

When we first meet her, she’s gathering firewood with the local widows.  The women are wearing their dark “widow’s weave,” but the girl is a beacon of color in the forest clearing: she’s dressed in a bright red top and floral scarf and has crowned herself with autumn flowers.

At such a young age, she’s already made a decision to balance beauty and light against the drudgery and depression of her life as a widow’s daughter.

So here’s the first lesson in balance: it has to be intentional.  When you find that your life is tipping too far in one direction, you have to choose to nudge it back toward center, even when that means heading a different direction from everyone else around you.

The second lesson in balance comes when the boy invites the girl to live in his faerie hall.  Though she’s completely unafraid of him and intoxicated by the non-stop feasting and dancing, she ultimately chooses to return home.

“I cannot on your food be fed/And still my needs fulfill,” she tells him.

So, lesson number two: to maintain balance, you have to know yourself and your core needs.  It’s a myth (a clinically debunked one, in fact) that balance means having everything in equal measure.  Finding balance is really about finding your center, which in turn means figuring out what matters most to you.

The young girls in your life will probably need a little help figuring this one out.  That’s where you come in–draw them out, ask them what they most like to do, what interests them most.

Whatever their answer, I’m sure they’ll be inspired by Yolen’s girl.  Though she’s not much older than they are, she’s already cognizant of her deep connection to the land, to nature, and to her daily work.

At the same time, though, she’s not afraid to try something new, to temper the gravity and hard work of her life with some lightness and play.

Which brings us to the third lesson in balance: when you’re secure in your center, branching out won’t be so threatening.  In fact, it will be just the opposite: a source of joy and enrichment for your life.

When the faerie boy suggests that he and the girl swap magical gifts to seal their friendship, she doesn’t hesitate.  She makes the exchange and the commitment.  And, in return, she finds such happiness that it completely befuddles those who know her.

Be intentional, know yourself, and don’t be afraid to branch out.  That sounds like inspiration to me.

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