What do you think of when you imagine a princess? Perhaps, it’s the type of young woman we encounter in Disney movies, the kind we see little girls dressed up as at themed birthday parties — beautiful, accomplished, vulnerable, compassionate, and usually, draped in flouncy, pink attire. But in the world of children’s books, a seismic shift is underway. ‘Pink princesses’ are being elbowed out of the way by sisters who go by the name ‘Princess’, but wear black, slay dragons, choose their own partners and friends, and trample gender norms in their wake.
Girls To The Rescue
This goes as far back as 1980, with The Paper Bag Princess, written by Canadian Robert Munsch, and is still in print today. It all begins conventionally ‘...a beautiful princess named Elizabeth was going to marry a handsome prince named Ronald.’ That’s where convention ends, though, as Elizabeth proceeds to rescue Ronald from a fire-breathing dragon wearing nothing but a paper bag — and thinks twice about the whole marriage deal in the process.
Princess Easy Pleasy
An Indian parallel followed in the nineties in the form of Katha Books’ The Princess with the Longest Hair — in which the protagonist cuts off her flowing locks in order to give it to those who need it — and feels a lot less encumbered as a result. But what began as a trickle failed to develop into a more established trend until more recently. Unconventional princesses are now proliferating, and you don’t have to look hard to find them.
Princesses Are Not Just Pretty
Breaking the stereotype
Released this year, Karadi Tales’ Princess Easy Pleasy also has all the markings of becoming a game-changer of a book. Written by Mumbai-based Natasha Sharma, its heroine is the sort of child you encounter pretty much every day — spoilt, pampered, and set in her ways. In Sharma's own words, “Most princesses in picture books are sugary sweet little angels. Princess Easy Pleasy doesn’t reflect those angelic qualities.” In many ways, it’s a book that takes this ‘anti-princess’ trend a logical step further forward, in that it eschews all forms of gendered marketing, and manages to have an appeal, which transcends both age and sex.
Princess With The Longest Hair
For Sharma, who cites The Paper Bag Princess as a favourite book, this is an important point. “The book might have a princess in a lead role but it is as much fun for a little boy as it is for a little girl to read. I don’t think any book is only for a boy or a girl. The book’s illustrator Priya Kuriyan agrees. “I especially did not want the book to follow the Pink-princess trope which has mostly been used as a marketing ploy while selling books. Boys might want also to read stories about princesses.”
The Princess Who Had No Fortune
Karadi Tales publisher Shobha Viswanath is clear that she would never have had a ‘pink cover’ for Princess Easy Pleasy, but shares that what initially stood out when she received the submission was the fact it had ‘adult appeal’ and layers of humour, too. It’s easy to spot this, in a story that revolves around fussy eating, and a protagonist who wants food abroad to taste just like her favourite dishes at the palace. Because who hasn’t either encountered or indulged in a sneaky trip to an Indian restaurant whilst travelling away from home?
Marmaduke And The Very Different Dragon
The human royal
As Anurima Roy, Head, marketing and publicity, Bloomsbury India, points out, in children’s books “princesses are becoming more ‘human’ — with their own set of problems and emotions.” You can see that in Bloomsbury’s recently published Marmaduke the Dragon series, which features the sparky Princess Meg, who refuses to be rescued by a dragon, and instead befriends it. Meg is an easy character to love: feisty, independent and infinitely sensible, but we also see her struggle with jealousy and insecurity.
According to Vatsala Kaul Banerjee, publisher, children’s & reference books, Hachette India, the, “age-old attraction to royalty and the idea of having everything” is no longer enough to make a book click — readers want to feel that the characters they encounter are people ‘just like us.’ “Being a princess is often seen as a position of convention rather than liberation. So modern stories ‘free’ princesses from their ‘bonds’, make them intelligent and sensitive to others, and in that way, more relatable,” Banerjee elaborates. This holds true for The Princess Who Had No Fortune (Hachette, 2014), an illustrated tale, which has an important message about true love being found in unexpected places.
Dark and beautiful
A look at Tulika’s 2015 title, Girls to the Rescue reveals princesses, as we’ve never seen before. Cinderella has custom-made glass slippers to fit her enormous feet, and agrees to date but not marry the prince. Snow White laments her excessively fair skin, while Rapunzel’s ‘saviour prince’ can’t climb, but instead chucks her a sword so she can cut off her own hair then use it as a rope. Author Sowmya Rajendran says, “princesses are mega bores. The ones in the stories I grew up reading anyway.” Yet she’s managed to make the ladies in her adapted versions far from boring.
Sharma says, “I create a combination of reflection, introspection and my own attitudes and beliefs.” But she also makes a vital clarification, pointing out a major difference between books that teach ‘moral lessons’, and those, which allow children to draw their own conclusions. Unlike books we grew up on, this new slew of princess books fall into the latter category, allowing their young readers to decide for themselves who they want to be, and whether or not they want to wear pink.