Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Barefoot Book of Princesses

We’ve been hearing about princesses a lot lately; since the world is about to get a new one. However, whether or not there’s an upcoming royal wedding, princesses are a cultural staple. Little girls love a princess, and Disney is only too happy to supply lots of princess role models. Some people think this is dangerous, that it sets up a false ideal of femininity that’s connected to beauty and finding a man. I don’t know. Recently the Disney princesses have been pretty self-sufficient. Yes, they’re always beautiful, but at least they’re a little more varied now, and hooking in a prince isn’t always their only priority.
Still, I’m sure Rich and I will want to be careful when, in a few years, our baby girl Pauline is likely to get hooked into the princess hype. I plan to let her watch the Disney movies if that’s what she wants to do, but I also plan to show her The Barefoot Book of Princesses.
I bought it years ago, when I was teaching a fantasy literature class, and we were discussing fairy tales. I haven’t taught the class recently, but I held onto the book because I think it’s great and I’m excited to read it to Pauline when she’s old enough. It truly is multi-cultural, with all sorts or nationalities represented.  The Princess and the Pea is Danish; The Beggar Princess is Chinese; The Mountain Princess is Persian; The Princess who Lost her Hair is from Akamba; The Sleeping Beauty is German, The Birdcage Husband is a Kalmuck story; and The Horned Snake's Wife is Iroquois.
Author Caitlin Matthews does a good job in the retelling of all these stories. In each one she depicts a princess who is strong-willed, unique, and special. The illustrations are beautiful, but the princesses on these pages don’t always fit into the traditional ideals of American beauty. That is one of the book’s biggest strengths.
I don’t think there is any point in trying to steer Pauline away from the Disney princess. The harder I try, the more she’ll want to be one. However, it is possible to present some other options of what it means to be a princess, and The Barefoot Book of Princesses is a wonderful place to start.

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