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This is the fifth (and final) post in my “Precocious Princesses” series, reviews of inspiring alternatives to traditional princess tales.

Spindle’s End

by Robin McKinley

Ace Books, 2001

354 pages

If “Rapunzel” is progressive as princess tales go, “Sleeping Beauty” is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

However embellished, the story usually goes something like this: Princess is cursed.  Princess is raised icognito for her protection.  Princess is lured to her doom.  Princess falls into enchanted sleep.  Princess is woken and rescued by brave, handsome prince.

Notice how almost all the sentences you just read are in passive voice?  Because that’s pretty much what “Sleeping Beauty” is, a tale of passivity.

Unless Robin McKinley is telling the story.  Then it’s a tale of “girls who do things,” as she likes to say.

It’s also a tale of magic, of the friendship and familial bonds between women, and of the bravery of girls who rise to the occasion in spectacular ways.

Spindle’s End centers around Rosie, princess and heir to the throne in a country where magic is “so thick and tenacious that it settle[s] over the land like chalk-dust.”

Cursed on her name-day by the evil fairy Pernicia, Rosie spends her childhood in the foster care of Aunt and Katriona, two professional fairies who live in a remote rural province.

The two women try to make Rosie “as safe as ordinariness can make her,” but Rosie is far from ordinary.

Even as an infant, she’s alert, active, and strong-willed.  She grows to exhibit the gift of beast-speech, prefers short hair and trousers to long ringlets and dresses, and apprentices to the local blacksmith as a horse-leech.

Then, just months before her twenty-first birthday, an otherworldly stranger appears (on her doorstep, literally) and reveals her true identity.  And she and the people who love her must decide how best to face her curse and defeat Pernicia for good.

It’s a brilliant elaboration of the old tale, with McKinley expanding on and reinterpreting all the key elements in stunningly creative ways.

Take Pernicia and her curse, for example.  Most tellings of “Sleeping Beauty” reduce the princess’s christening to something out of a teen revenge flick, with the social outcast exploding on the scene to throw her tantrum and make everyone sorry they didn’t invite her to the ball.

McKinley’s Pernicia, however, is a sorceress whose magic is at once insidious and overwhelming in its craft and potency.  The curse is her attempt at resurrecting a centuries-old war against the women of the royal family–and the breaking of it requires far more than a simple kiss from a prince (though that figures, too, in delightfully altered form).

And then there are Aunt and Katriona, whose devotion to one another and to Rosie is a matchless (not to mention gritty, poignant, and hilarious) depiction of the love between mothers and their children, biological and otherwise.

While the fairy foster-mothers function primarily as plot devices in most versions of the tale, Aunt and Katriona are fully realized women.  The central characters for half the book, they wield a blend of grace, intelligence, wisdom, and magic that’s so strong they can barely contain it.

I could go on for pages, but I’d end up spoiling the book’s most delicious treats and surprises.  Suffice to say that there’s not a single weak woman in the book–every one has her strengths, even if some are more hidden than others.

Nor do they come across as clumsily feminized versions of male archetypes, as sometimes happens when less-gifted authors try to inject some “girl power” into old, misogynist tales.  These are women, undeniably and gloriously so.

Even more inspiring, they help each other understand what womanhood means, both in general terms and in the context of their culture and their individual lives.

When one of them struggles to comprehend some aspect of her life or identity, the others deliberately form a wide circle around her.  They walk the delicate line between offering support and wisdom and leaving space for her to make her own discoveries.

The result: an environment and relationships that foster each person’s (not just each woman’s) growth to full potential.  Because, as you may have heard it said, when women succeed, everyone succeeds.

Strong women, strong purposes, strong bonds, strong society.  You can’t get much more inspiring than that.

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

Rapunzel’s Revenge

by Shannon and Dean Hale, ill. by Nathan Hale

Bloomsbury, 2008

144 pages

For a princess story, the tale of Rapunzel is fairly subversive.

To begin with, she’s not actually a princess, or even of noble birth.  She actively enables the prince’s visits to her tower, and she plots her own escape.  She makes her own way in the wilderness.  And she rescues the prince, who is magically healed of blindness by her tears.

Even in its classic form, then, “Rapunzel” is a decent alternative to passive-princess tales like “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty.”

For older girls, however, there is an even better option: the sassy graphic novel Rapunzel’s Revenge, written by husband-and-wife team Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by Nathan Hale (not related to the authors).

More than a retelling, Rapunzel’s Revenge is a complete reboot of the fairy tale.  Set in the nineteenth-century American West, the Hales’ version skillfully treads the territory between parody and inspired reimagination.

This Rapunzel lives in a walled compound with her mother Gothel, a grim woman who uses powerful “growth magic” to control the area’s food production and, by extension, its wealth and people.

But Rapunzel is tired of being cooped up like a lapdog, and she’s not so sure she wants to be Gothel’s heir.  When she discovers that Gothel is actually her kidnapper and captor, not her mother, she openly rebels–and Gothel locks her in an enchanted tree-tower for punishment.

Rapunzel spends 4 years there, her thick red hair growing all the time, until she finally engineers her own escape.  Accompanied by a guy named Jack, whom she rescues from some thugs, Rapunzel gradually makes her way back to Mother Gothel’s villa.  Her goal (the “revenge” of the title) is to liberate the land and people from Gothel’s clutches and rescue her own true mother from the witch’s dungeons.

The entire tale, from beginning to end, is nothing short of brilliant.  Equal parts campy Western, quest fantasy, and pioneer/adventure tale, it’s overlayed with just the right amount of sincerity and poignancy.

If you’re a fan of the film Gladiator, you’ll know what I mean.  You cheer for Rapunzel not just because you love watching her kick the bad guys’ butts (which she does quite handily, thank you very much); you also want this lonely, wandering girl to find the family she so desperately seeks.

And that’s what makes this tale captivating: Rapunzel feels real.  Hard to imagine, for a girl who twirls torches at the ends of her braids and rides lake serpents like they’re rodeo bulls.  But her creators, through both artwork and story, manage to color her with oh-so-human longings and fears.

As an added bonus, they do it all without the gore, blue language, and sexual objectification so pervasive in the genre.  Admittedly, there are moments where the story seems a little too squeaky-clean, but they’re few and far between.

The overall package is beautifully executed, a brain-tickling blend of clever humor, sly allusions, authentic character development, and high-octane adventure.

It’s the perfect book for girls in difficult circumstances who feel powerless to effect change–and for any girl who needs a little encouragement to be unapologetically, radically herself.

The Hale trio have also published Calamity Jack, a follow-up to Rapunzel’s Revenge.  As you might guess, this comic shifts the focus to Rapunzel’s friend Jack, although our heroine is still a prominent character.  And, yes, there is a giant involved.

Shannon Hale is also the author of several alternative fairy tales in novel form, the most famous of which is her Newbery Honor-winning Princess Academy.

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

The Ordinary Princess

by M. M. Kaye

Viking, 2002

112 pages

Developing this series, I looked high and low for a good tween-oriented princess tale.  There was Ella Enchanted, of course, but it seemed like such an obvious choice.

I wanted to find something off the beaten path, and one of my fabulous librarian friends obligingly pointed me to The Ordinary Princess.

It’s an overused phrase, but this really is a gem of a book.

It reads much like Winnie-the-Pooh, Beatrix Potter’s tales, or The Hobbit: comfortably chatty, seasoned with equal parts sly humor and old-fashioned propriety.

In short, it’s utterly, unmistakably English–the perfect tone for a cheeky rewrite of the typical princess tale.

Here’s the story: Her Serene and Royal Highness the Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne is the seventh daughter of the King and Queen of Phantasmorania.

At her christening, a cranky old fairy “gifts” her with Ordinariness, and the princess grows up looking, thinking, and acting like a normal girl.

Fast-forward several years, and the King and Queen are seeking a husband for Princess Amy.  When they decide to take the drastic step of locking Amy in a tower and hiring a dragon to guard her–the King says it will make her irresistible to princes–the princess decides that she’s had enough.

She runs away to a neighboring kingdom, where she finds work as a palace kitchen maid and strikes up a friendship with a “man-of-all-work” named Peregrine.

When a couple of chance meetings reveal their true identities (Peregrine is actually a young king who doesn’t want to marry a typical princess), the two realize they were made for each other.

The story ends with them marrying and sneaking off to a honeymoon in an ordinary forest cottage.

There’s so much inspiration here, particularly for tween girls just beginning to navigate the world of body-consciousness and identity issues.

First, there’s the princess’s refusal to be passed from hand to hand or locked away like so much baggage.

Rather than allow others to determine her destiny–or, indeed, her worth–she courageously strikes out for a path that’s true to who she is.

Then there’s her adaptability.  She moves easily and competently between palace, forest, and kitchen.  She’s unafraid of hard work, and her joy isn’t dependent on wealth and pomp.

But what I love most is the fact that she’s at peace with herself.

She sees her ordinariness as a blessing, not a cross to bear (which, of course, is what the old fairy intended).  She doesn’t pine for ballrooms, jewels, and gowns–she’s happy to run around in the forest.

Nor does she spend her time as kitchen maid wishing she had the looks and accomplishments to fit into palace society.

Is she perfectly confident?  Not by a long shot.  She has her insecurities, her moments of wistfulness.  But those just make her seem real and relateable.

Overall, she is quite content to be The Ordinary Princess, and she refuses to do life on any terms but her own.

That’s inspiring to me.  How about you?

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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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