While many parents are tired to death of princesses and all the fancy, frilly fripperies that go with playing princess, there is far more to be found in the princess line than just your basic Disney princesses. To expand your child’s horizons, try out some of these books…with nary a musical number in sight!
Princess Baby, Night-Night, by Karen Katz (2009, infant/toddler): As Princess Baby (which appears to be the nickname of a very normal toddler (wearing a crown and sparkly shoes)) is supposed to be getting ready for bed, her parents call out to her with questions about her progress. We can see Princess Baby avoid outright untruths as she skirts their questions or gives vague answers while she continues to play with her toys. However, when her parents come to put her in bed, she has already fallen asleep among all her toys, and her parents wish her goodnight.
I Want My Present!: A Lift-the-Flap Book, by Tony Ross (2005, preschool/early elementary): A very crabby-looking little princess in her nightgown goes around the castle demanding her present. Each person she encounters (from her parents (or so I gather from their matching crowns) to the palace cook) looks and finds something of his or her own instead. (There’s even a cat looking and a little mouse who shows up on each page.) Finally, her nursemaid comes running with a box…a box that contains a paper crown. The formerly grumpy princess is finally satisfied as she hands her present (the one she made especially!) to her nurse.
Princess Wannabe, written and illustrated by Leslie Lammle (2014, early elementary): The opening page starts with the line, “Is it story time yet?” Fern’s babysitter realizes that it’s too late for stories before bedtime, and she tells the little girl that princess stories “all end the same way” so there’s no need to read this one. Fern is determined, however, to find out for herself how her book ends, so she sits down to read it herself, and magically gets drawn into the book. When she finally encounters the princess, she discovers that–just like Fern wishes she could be a princess–the princess just wants to be able to relax and read with her friends all day, just as Fern can. Fern returns home via fairy dust just in time for bed, and her babysitter gets a whiff of fairy dust as we get the implication that her babysitter will get a surprise as she carries off the book.
The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko (1980, early elementary): Elizabeth is a proper princess who is going to marry a proper prince named Ronald. However, a dragon destroys her castle (and all her lovely clothes!) and carries off Ronald. Elizabeth dons a paper bag (remarkably, the only thing in the castle left unburnt) and follows so she can try to rescue Ronald. Elizabeth tricks the dragon into using up all his fire and then to wear himself out flying so that he falls asleep, and she enters his cave. Ronald is there, but he tells her to come back when she looks like a real princess again. Elizabeth tells him that although he “look[s] like a real prince,” he’s really a bum. (My third-graders laughed hysterically at this line–which was the author’s toned-down version! His original oral story involved the princess punching the prince in the nose. :) ) And they don’t get married.
Princess Pigsty, by Cornelia Funke, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer (2007, early elementary): Princess Isabella, the youngest of three prim and proper princesses, has finally had enough of the pampering and boredom of her prim and proper life. One morning, she throws a proper fit and tosses her crown into the fishpond. Her father, the king, is very angry at her for her defiance and orders her to the kitchen until she is willing to get her crown out of the pond and behave properly again. When that doesn’t work (she loves working in the kitchen and has new and interesting things she’s learned), he tries banishing her to the pigsty, but she also enjoys that experience. He finally realizes that he loves and misses his little girl and wants her to return to the castle, so he returns her crown to her and asks her to come back and do the things she wants to do because all he wants is for her to be happy. As they return to the castle and Isabella shares some of her plans, her father shows an interest in trying new things and learning with her.
The Princess Knight, by Cornelia Funke, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer (2001, early elementary): Princess Violetta’s mother dies when she is born, and the king–whose three sons have been raised just as he was raised (and have acquired some decidedly haughty tendencies to boot)–decides to raise his tiny princess in the same way. Her three older brothers taunt her and boast about their prowess in all the areas where poor little Violetta struggles. So Violetta begins to practice in secret, “in her own way, without shouting and without using her spurs.” She becomes so good that her brothers stop harassing her. However, when she turns sixteen, her father proposes a tournament to celebrate, but–instead of getting to participate–she is to be the prize for the winner! On the day of the tournament, she disguises herself as Sir No-Name (and her veiled nursemaid as herself) so that she can compete. She wins, and she chooses her own prize–that “no one will ever win Princess Violetta’s hand in marriage without first defeating Sir No-Name.” She rides off on her horse and only returns after “a year and a day,” and her father and brothers show her the respect that her skill deserves. (And she marries the gardener’s son when she is good and ready.)
Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade, by Stephanie Green, illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson (2010, early elementary): This first book in a simple chapter book series tells the story of Posey (aka, Princess Posey (when she’s wearing her ratty pink tutu and the confidence boost it gives her!)) as she prepares to enter first grade. Posey’s pretty nervous in particular about one thing: drop-off. She doesn’t like the idea of having to walk into the school and her classroom on her own, and she longs to wear her tutu to give her some courage. A chance meeting with her soon-to-be teacher in the grocery store results in a conversation that gives Miss Lee the idea to have a first grade parade–wear your favorite clothes!–on the first day of school to help the new first graders feel more at ease as they transition from kindergarten into first grade.
The Princess in Black, by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale (2014, early/middle elementary): Princess Magnolia gets a surprise visit from Duchess Wigtower, and Duchess Wigtower makes it perfectly clear that she’s there to find out what is up with Princess Magnolia since everyone has secrets. Princess Magnolia does have a secret–a very big secret–and she doesn’t want anyone to know. Princess Magnolia is also the Princess in Black, a pony-riding, masking-wearing, monster-fighting force to be reckoned with! While she is entertaining Duchess Wigtower, she receives a monster alert on her glitter-stone ring and has to rush away to deal with the problem. Duff, the goat boy, watches in alarm and admiration as she defeats the monster and sends him back home. He can’t help but be reminded of Princess Magnolia, but he brushes off the idea until later, after he has put the goats to bed. He is inspired to create a disguise for himself, the Goat Avenger, and vows to practice and get stronger so that he, too, may one day fight alongside the Princess in Black (whoever she is!). Duchess Wigtower, who has been snooping, has found a pair of black stockings in a closet. She determines that–since princesses don’t wear black–Princess Magnolia’s secret is that she has really filthy stockings. Princess Magnolia is relieved that her true secret is still safe. I really like not only the silliness of the story but the fact that Princess Magnolia and Duff are both drawn as round-faced, decidedly average-looking children! Very accessible book, and clearly open to potential sequels! (For anyone who doesn’t know, Shannon Hale writes non-traditional princess stories, many based on fairy tale characters, for older readers, too.)
The Rescue Princesses: The Secret Promise (Book 1), by Paula Harrison (2012, elementary): As Emily and the other 9-year-old princes and princesses from around their world gather at the castle of Mistburg’s King Gudland, they are excited to meet one another and to attend the ceremonial Grand Ball where they will be formally introduced to the other royal families. Emily and the other princesses come together to rescue an injured deer and to discover who has been setting illegal traps in the forest. When they discover the plot and disable all the traps, they are able to give evidence against the poacher. They decide to team up and become the Rescue Princesses with the help of the special communicator jewels one of the princesses designed for their rings. (I have to note that GirlChild adores these books. Reading them, to me, feels like reading something I would have written myself when I was a kid–one part fan fiction, one part science fiction, one part ninja training, and one part serious wish fulfillment–but that means that it absolutely would have been a book series that I would have loved as a young reader as well. The princesses are modern (Emily’s family took a plane to Mistburg and there’s a zipline on the castle grounds), but their courtly expectations and old castles don’t make it overly obvious, and it actually helps explain their independent, modern child behaviors more than the anachronistic behaviors in some supposedly realistic period pieces.)
A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illustrated by Tasha Tudor (1905, upper elementary): Sara Crewe, an intellectually and emotionally precocious seven-year-old girl born in India to wealthy Captain Crewe and his French wife, is brought to London to a distinguished seminary for girls in order to receive her education. Her mother died when she was born, leaving Sara as the “little missus” of her home for a long time, and her self-assured manner and inventive mind endear her to many at the school while others (like the headmistress, Miss Minchin) feel threatened by her superior character and envious of her wealth. When her father dies and leaves her penniless, now eleven-year-old Sara is relegated to the attics and given the most humbling tasks Miss Minchin can conceive as a sort of revenge on Sara for her “airs” and for saddling her with her expenses (as though that were Sara’s fault). Sara uses her imagination and her aspiration to always behave graciously, as a princess would, to get through the trials that she faces in her new situation. In the end, after two long years, an amazing circumstance causes many wrongs to be righted, and Sara is seen for the strong, loyal, gracious child she is–a true princess at heart. GirlChild is too young yet to read this on her own, but I have immediate plans to read it aloud to her because I think it’s such a good story with such insight into humanity!
The Royal Diaries (A Dear America book series, upper elementary/middle school): I have to preface this with the statement that I have not actually read any of these books (although I have read a few Dear America titles). The publication information pages have a note that says, “While The Royal Diaries are based on real royal figures and actual historical events, some situations and people in this book are fictional, created by the author.” The books are written as diary entries by the main character, and they assume that the reader will either know some background information, will seek it out while reading, or will have the patience to deal with the ambiguity of waiting for clarity as the story unfolds. Featuring such varied princesses (or queens) as Elizabeth I (England, 1544), Lady of Ch’iao Kuo (Southern China, A.D. 531), and Nzingha (Angola, Africa, 1595), each book contains the diary portion, an epilogue, a historical note that includes a family tree, maps, photos, and illustrations, a glossary of characters/places with fictional characters marked, an about the author section (with author notes about writing the book), and acknowledgements (including citations for the included art).
Unfortunately, I ran out of time to read and review all the biographies (from picture books about Ka’iulani and Pocohontas to your basic nonfiction about Cleopatra and others. I also didn’t get around to The Tale of Despereaux, The Hero and the Crown (YA), and the Enchanted Forest Chronicles (YA) or any of the Wonder Woman books I found! If you want a chance to discover a hidden gem of a book about princesses (and you’re willing to wade through a catalog full of Disney-pink covers!), use “princess” as a keyword in your catalog search!