The Female Gaze: Summer Reading for Jr. Princesses
Each week in The Female Gaze, Faith Newport engages the trends, events, and issues that affect women—and the men who care about them.
I’ve been noticing lately that “princess culture” has been getting a bad rap, and I’ll admit it’s mostly well-deserved. However, some of my favorite fictional heroines as a girl were, in fact, princesses—girls with sass, class, and some pretty hardcore fighting skills! So, just in case you know any little girls about to outgrow the two-dimensional characters favored by Disney, I’ve put together a list (in no particular order) of some of my old favorites. These are books I plan on reading to my daughters some day, and they emphasize a type of beauty that is more than a sparkly new dress or glass slipper.
The Horse and His Boy, by C. S. Lewis
Out of all the Narnia books, this one might be the most easily overlooked. It’s not a prequel, it’s not a sequel—if LW&W is breakfast and Prince Caspian is lunch, then this book must be brunch! The Horse and His Boy features several princesses, two of whom are immediately recognizable as the “grown-up” versions of Lucy and Susan Pevensie during their reign in Narnia. However, the story focuses on a very different girl, namely the blue-blooded Aravis from the neighboring country of Calormen. Strong-willed, smart, and a heck of a horse rider, Aravis is a perfect foil to any princess lacking personality. Overall, it’s a beautifully different perspective on the familiar world Lewis created and an incredibly worthwhile read.
The Two Princesses of Bamarre/Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine
Forget the movie adaptation of Ella Enchanted starring Anne Hathaway and a whole lot of bad dance numbers—instead, Ms. Levine’s books feature heart, charm, and selfless heroines. Served up with several generous servings of magic and budding romance, of course. Her characters slay dragons, save kingdoms, and defeat their own curses. Both books are sweet, fun reads for girly girls.
The Squire’s Tales Series, by Gerald Morris
Gerald Morris’s Squires Tales series is a funny, irreverent take on classic Arthurian legend, bordering on satire. Morris deftly draws a contrast between conventional court chivalry and true character, casting the romantic foppery of Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseoldt, and others like them in a purely ridiculous light. Meanwhile, the princesses, knights, and damsels (distressed or otherwise) that manage to achieve valor without vanity become the focal point for a series that is humorous, witty, and thoroughly entertaining. Start at the beginning and work your way through, or begin with my favorite installment, The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf. Caution: Some books in the series contain occasional crude humor, as well as adult situations such as adulterous affairs.
Just About Anything by, Actually
The first time I read one of Robin McKinley’s books (like so many other books I read as a kid), I was too young to really appreciate it. Luscious is probably the best way to describe her flair for storytelling, and she brings a rich detail to nearly-familiar fairy tales. Her female characters have depth and strength, and her writing captures the imagination. I recommend Beauty, Spindle’s End, and last but far from least, The Blue Sword.
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, by Patricia C. Wrede
If I could live in a book series, this would probably be the one. Wrede’s books follow a spunky, savvy princess named Cimorene. She’s mastered fencing, magic spells, and Latin—but falls woefully short on princessy skills like curtseys and the fine art of getting engaged. Luckily, living with a dragon means getting to take advantage of one’s uncommon talents. It’s hard to believe the series was written in the very early 1990s, because even twenty years later they’re still incredibly accessible and fresh. Hands down, my favorite pick of the list!
Did I miss a good one? If you have a favorite princess tale, share it in the comments!
I love Tamora Pierce’s books–many of her girl heroines are the knights instead of the princesses. But if you’re looking for princesses in particular, try Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen, about a girl spy sent to protect two princesses from political assassins.
Robin McKinley is one of the most skilled heirs to Tolkien, and an interesting feminist to boot. The Blue Sword features the best dragonslaying since The Hobbit, thanks to her deeply comprehensible protagonist and her ability to hurt her protagonist massively.
But the most interesting thing about McKinley, for me, is that despite her tomboyishness she legitimately values women’s experience. She wrote once how she had mixed feelings about the fact that “rich men could sit alone in their room contemplating philosophy while women and servants cooked, cleaned, and took care of the details of life.” On the one hand, it seems a rank injustice. But on the other, she is convinced that women and servants–people who have to struggle through life, who don’t just contemplate their own navels–have experiences and wisdom and in some ways a richer understanding of the world due to their lack of privilege. I may be paraphrasing badly, but it’s an interesting point.
I think her characters reflect that. They do what needs to be done, and they can be as courageous, individualistic, and fierce as they need to be to protect themselves and those they love. But the core of every McKinley book seems to lie in areas our culture codes as feminine: the comforts of community, the quiet joys of intimate friendship, the cozy and cute things that make the harshness of life endurable. I think of her, in fact, as the Poet Laureate of coziness–not because her books are cozy (they aren’t!) but because they celebrate those fragile, homely, fleshy experiences that tend to be dismissed in art and life as irrelevant.
I absolutely and rabidly endorse Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. It’s probably my favourite princess story.
Nausicaä is the princess of a small valley on the outskirts of the giant, polluted forest that is slowly growing to engulf all the world. The forest is the result of the end of the world, that took place a thousand years ago, when man’s thirst for technology and war initiated a seven-day cataclysm that wiped out most of everything. The forest is the fruit of that destruction and even a single breath of its miasmic air is enough to kill a man.
Nausicaä is in the midst of experimenting with samples of the forest and its unique life forms when the political machinations of other, larger nations interrupts her endeavors. The young princess gets thrown into a full-scale war between two nations with a third faction being the forest itself. It’s a fantastic epic that explores identity, gender politics, environmentalism, and the human thirst for violence.
I’d guess it’s age-appropriate for fifth grade and up.
Thanks for the reminder to everyone about The Horse and His Boy, which has long been my favorite of the Narnia Chronicles. I agree that Aravis is a great character, all the more because of the terrific juxtaposition against the more generic princess-y Lasaraleen. In addition, I commend almost any novel by Patricia McKillip; she has fantasies with very well-developed female characters, many of them princesses or queens. She’ll be easy to find: right next to Robin McKinley in most bookstores.
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