Saturday, 17 September 2016

Princesses with Attitude: My Top Ten Princess Books - by Emma Barnes

Princesses get a bad press. There can be a lot of snarling and breast-beating among parents and book lovers on the subject: all that simpering – all that passive sitting about looking pretty and waiting for princes – all that pink! When people take issue with gender stereotypes in children's books, it is often princesses that are first in line.

I agree that girls and boys shouldn't be pushed towards particular models at an early age, and should be free to choose their own toys, books and clothes as they please. Yet I can't help feeling that there are double-standards at work – that while it is fine for girls to want to be pirates or aliens, when it comes to princesses and fairies, everyone would much rather girls would just forget about them (and perish the thought that boys might ever pick up such a book).
Chloe longs to be a princess

Is wanting to be a princess (at age seven) really so surprising? Consider this, if you are a princess you are:

  1. Important, however old you are, and because of this -
  2. Adults have to listen to you.
I mean, what's not to like!  It's the opposite of the usual state of being a child, which means being dependent and having to do what adults tell you. No surprise, then, that princesses become objects for fantasy and role-play. That might mean dressing up and bossing people around. (In fact, there's almost certainly an element of that!) But it is also about being taken seriously and having power to shape your own life.

Of course, the fantasy is one thing, but real-life is more complicated. When they get muddled, there's all kinds of trouble!  In my new book, Chloe and her two best friends are determined to be princesses. But ordinary life has a horrible habit of getting in the way. Unsympathetic parents who won't pay for dancing lessons, busy teachers who don't like frogs, annoying brothers who are...well, annoying: they all make Chloe's pursuit of princessdom a lot harder than she anticipated.  Not that Chloe and her friends Aisha and Eliza will ever give up.

Princess books will keep being written, and published, just so long as there are dreamy little girls like Chloe out there longing to read them.  Here follows a list of my ten favourite princess books.

1) Princess Smartypants


Who couldn't love the alligator-owning, motorcycle riding Princess Smartypants?

2) The Little Princess Series

By contrast this princess is very much a real toddler - constant cries of "I want"! - and her adventures are very grounded in real life.

3) The Worst Princess

A lovely rhyming text, and like Princess Smartypants, very much a twist on the traditional fairy tale. 

5) Princess Grace

Grace discovers that you don't have to be blonde, or wear pink, to be a princess.

6) Princess Mirror-belle

By Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson, naughty Princess Mirror-belle escapes from a mirror and causes all sorts of trouble!

5) The Rescue Princesses series

Perfect for newly independent readers - and with lots of titles to read - the Rescue Princesses series is about friendship, adventure and love of animals.

6) Princess (Dis)Grace

Funny, charming series about a clumsy princess going to boarding school.

7) The Young Elizabeth

One of my favourite reads growing up, this tells of the early life of Elizabeth Tudor (later Elizabeth I) who relied on her considerable wits to survive accusations of treason and imprisonment in the Tower of London and eventually become queen!  (Now out-of-print, a good modern alternative might be My Royal Story by Kathryn Lasky.)

8)   A Little Princess

One of my absolute favourites - and Chloe's too.  The heroine, orphaned Sara Crewe, inspires Chloe to believe anybody can be a princess, if they believe they're a princess and act like a princess (not always an easy thing to do).

10.  The Princess Diaries


New York high school student Mia discovers that she is next-in-line to inherit an European principality: witty, funny, sophisticated, this series of books inspired a successful film - and is very much in YA territory.

Having complied this list, I realise there are so many more I'd have liked to add.  And plenty have been recommended to me too.  

If you're still hungry for princess books then do not fear!

Some more great books...

Emma Barnes's book Chloe's Secret Princess Club is out now.
Find out more about Emma's books on her web-site.


Catherine Butler said...

Thanks for that list!

Tangentially, I wonder why there are so few - actually, are there any - books about princes? On the face of it, they'd have the same appeal: being important, adults having to listen to you, etc. Yet it just isn't a "thing".

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent point, Catherine. Currently observing how exposure to the princess culture at nursery has infected a MicroBint too young to be grasping any concept of being important and people having to listen (surely the classic Disney princess genre rests on NOT being listened to?) and being all about wearing a dress like a pink meringue. Maybe no prince books because they don't get to wear anything interesting? At least not since publishers got scared of showing swords. Or they have to spend their time rescuing stupid princesses who have got out of their depth. I agree that for older children there are some princess books that offer a better role model (and a lot that don't), but the rot sets in with the pink dresses and has to be countered by these later books.

Emma Barnes said...

There may not be so many books about princes, Cathy, but there have been lots of books about knights - maybe the male equivalent? King Arthur and his round table has always been a big deal (maybe a bit less so now, perhaps, as you say, because swords are a bit 'out'). "Mike the Knight" is still a popular preschool TV show. The idea of being a knight is typically more 'active' than the traditional idea of being a princess, but a lot of the princesses I've highlighted here are active too - like the Rescue Princesses, for example.

For me the princess I adored from an early age was Elizabeth Tudor (the Jean Plaidy book) and what I liked about her was that she was talented, clever, educated and self sufficient - a survivor. No, she didn't go around bopping people over the head with a lance, she was a lot more formidable than that - and she didn't sit around waiting for a prince either (as we all know, she famously never married anybody.) Interestingly, she did pay attention to her clothes, but as a political weapon. She's a much more impressive figure than most pirates, say - and yet we seem to think that's a great role model for our children.

Stroppy - I think Disney is so dominant that it blinds adults to the diverse "princess" characters out there. And in fact later Disney princesses are pretty active figures - Brave, for example, or the princesses of Frozen. And in those films the key relationships are mother/daughter and sister/sister - the prince is not a big deal at all.

Joan Lennon said...

Interesting idea about the knight as opposed to prince thing, Emma - so the equivalent character to the princess would be the squire - knight-in-training, I guess.

Nelson Baa said...

Princess series - my favourite ones. Kids love princess characters. Explore more learning activities for kids in

Sue Purkiss said...

Can't you like diggers as well as princesses? I was at university in the 70s. Germaine Greer stalked the earth with her wild hair and beautiful face and iconoclastic attitudes, and feminism was a given. But a few years later, I drew princesses for my small niece, and for both she and I, the pretty dresses were very much the point, though neither of us longed for pink or sequins in our own lives. (She has grown up to be a strong, independent woman who certainly did not hang about waiting for some foppish prince to roll up!) I can understand the fascination of princesses - and I can understand the fascination of diggers and dinosaurs too.