Why Children’s Literature Must Move Past the Princess

Books for young girls appear to be dominated with characterless princesses looking for husbands. Perhaps it is time to move past this.

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As a child I consumed my fair share of books. As a girl, many of those books were about princesses. Not all, mind you, but a lot. Now, I will be the first to point out that the books I read were a minute fraction of the number of books published for children, however the trend of princesses in female-oriented children’s literature is just as prevalent today, and is now gaining attention in the media.

The general counter-argument many adults are offering appears to be, “I read princess books when I was little and I’m fine.” Whilst on the one hand, it is a demonstration of the impact (or lack thereof) of children’s literature on the young mind (although I am sceptical of its supposed minimal impact), on the other it is saying: “It’s okay to only write repetitive stories for girls all day because that’s what I had.”

People can be quick to fire shots at feminism, yet often they are not prepared to listen to any of the arguments against this niche storytelling corner, despite it being incredible lazy and uncreative. By exercising your mind and your imagination, instead of repeating the same old tropes, an whole new world can be opened up to young girls, showing them there is more to life than being pretty and having a husband.

I’m not saying there’s something wrong with characters being feminine. I’d never want to demonise being feminine, but there’s a difference between princess and being feminine. You can be a badass lady samurai warrior and feminine (honest, I’ve seen the pictures).

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There’s nowt wrong with princess stories – if they are well-written and contain fully-formed, three dimensional characters, including the protagonist – but if bland, same-again tales pretty much saturate the entire bookshelf of your five-year-old daughter’s budding library, then perhaps it’s time for a change. From a child’s point of view, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to pretend to be a princess and imagining that people care about you (because, let’s face it, servants in children’s books aren’t really servants; they’re friends) as long as that doesn’t come to define you.

Heck, I’ve written about, essentially, princes or princesses in my stories, but you wouldn’t know it at first glance. They’re also not in every story I write or read. I just like my stories how I like my diet: varied and colourful.

As writers, we have a responsibility to tell the best tales we can. Instead of recycling overused princess clichés, why not write about space princesses or ninja princesses, or princesses that rule over dinosaurs? Or, perhaps, just remove the word ‘princess’ and write a different story altogether? There are so many interesting and inspiring tales to be told about other types of role models (ones that are actually achievable) that we can write about, such as doctors, police officers, vets, or chefs. There are less-achievable yet more ambitious ones like astronauts, explorers, deep sea divers, or actors. Then the unachievable like superheroes, aliens, witches, even gods. All those are part of a character, but not the entirety of it; being a princess, unfortunately, is often the defining trait of the female character.

People really struggle with how to write for girls and women, as much as they do when writing strong, interesting female characters. Some argue it’s because girls will read boys’ books if you leave them alone long enough and boys are notoriously picky, whilst others argue it’s because women and girls haven’t had a fair depiction or representation in the media. Whatever the reason is, I think widening variety could fix it, as could following the basic rule of writing: put the character first, not the plot. Write girls and women that are strong characters. I don’t mean stoic and ready to punch misogyny in the face, but instead give them their own agency, their own reason for living outside of some arbitrary gender stereotype. Have them smile, laugh, cry, whinge, moan, scream, be silent, whatever it is that makes the character themselves without merely being a princess, or a farmer, or a bounty hunter, or whatever job you have given them. We’re not cookie-cutter people.

When I was younger we were taught that we had to eat our greens and to try all the food at least once to see what we liked. This is the same advice. Girls need to eat more than just cookies every day.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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