I first encountered author Robert Munsch and illustrator Michael Martchenko's wonderful children's book The Paper Bag Princess in its board book version last Christmas, when I gave it to my son after having been recommended it by friends. And it immediately blew me away, even in that abridged format (I have since read it in full too).
In a day and age when gender roles and social structures relating to them are continuously under examination and critique, and we struggle to find the balance between allowing our children to fall into the pre-ordained roles and to be different, it is refreshing to note that one of the more radical takes on this in terms of children's literature is a book first published in 1980 (i.e. 32 years ago). Granted that it is sad that the book is still needed, but social structures do not change over night. It is a slow process. But this book, now in its 69th printing, is a good starting point.
So, what is so fantastic about this little book then, you wonder? I will tell you. But before I do, I feel obliged to tell you that there will be spoilers ahead. If you want a chance to read this story in full with unspoiled eyes, stop reading this post now, find a copy of the book and return here once you have read it.
The Paper Bag Princess is the story of Elizabeth. She is "a beautiful princess" (nothing radical there), who is "to marry a prince named Ronald" (nothing radical there either). After this somewhat traditional opening, things take a turn off the regular path. A dragon appears, burning down the castle, Elizabeth's clothes and kidnapping Ronald. Having lost her prince and her clothes in this dramatic and unorthodox fashion (after all, traditionally we would of course have expected Ronald to don a knightly suit to save his fair princess' hand), Elizabeth does not sit around and mope; she dons an unburned paper bag as clothing and goes after the dragon.
Not surprisingly, she finds the dragon, but yet again, the story deviates from our traditional expectations where we would have expected Ronald to be the party leaping into action, because Elizabeth not only shows cunning and great intelligence in her dealing with the dragon (there are after all some male heroes who prefer brains to brawn too), but also a restraint from using violence. The dragon is vanquished without a single drop of blood (Elizabeth's or the dragon's) being shed, swords being drawn or any blow being struck (although, a lot of trees could be classified as collateral damage, I guess).
And so the prince is saved, and traditionally, this is where we would expect to get back on the marriage track. However, this is not a traditional story. Prince Ronald complains about Elizabeth's appearance – hello! a princess dressed in a paper bag is no princess – at which point Elizabeth, quite logically, sees him for the bum he really is. And seeing that, she makes the only sound choice at hand, i.e. she dumps him.
The closing line of the book – "They didn't get married after all." – is great, both in the context of the story and the literary tradition it simultaneously works in and against.
While I think it ought to be mandatory reading for all young girls, I certainly encourage all parents to share this gem of a book with their children. Perhaps first and foremost because it is a very good read and beautifully illustrated, but not less importantly because it forces us to look at traditional views of princes and princesses critically, and turns them upside-down. And that is plain healthy – for everyone.