Growing up both Canadian and American, Robert Munsch – a bestselling Canadian author – was a staple in our household. We probably had at least seven or eight of his books on our shelves because if there’s one thing Canadians are proud of, it’s other Canadians with any level of fame or success (Ryan Gosling? Yeah, he’s ours. So is Celine Dion). While Munsch’s best known book is I’ll Love You Forever, my favorite has always been The Paper Bag Princess – a story of a girl who bests a dragon and saves the prince – all while wearing nothing but a paper bag.
I loved it as a kid and couldn’t wait to share it with my own daughter.
The Paper Bag Princess, written by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko, is an absolute classic. Published in 1980, the illustrations feel a little dated but the story can stand the test of time. I actually think it’s even more relevant today. Princess Elizabeth, who lives in a castle and wears expensive princess clothes, is content to marry her prince, Ronald, when a dragon smashes her castle, burns up all her clothes and carries off the prince. Desperate to get Ronald back, Princess Elizabeth takes off after the dragon, sporting the only thing she can find to wear – a paper bag. She successfully tracks the dragon down, easily outwits him and eventually waltzes right into his lair to free Prince Ronald. Rather than showing gratitude for what Elizabeth has done, Prince Ronald, a true prince charming, instead insults her appearance and tells her to
“Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.”
Elizabeth’s response is perfect. She tells him,
“Ronald, your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum”
and decides not to marry him after all.
As I hear is common with little girls, my two-and-a-half year old has recently entered the princess phase. We read princess books, we watch princess movies and we play with princess toys. She sports princess crowns and loves characters like Rapunzel, Cinderella and Belle. She tells me “I’m a princess!” while twirling in her much-beloved purple princess dress at least a couple times a day. She is all about princesses.
As much as I love our Disney movies and our many classic princess books, I appreciate that The Paper Bag Princess offers her a look at a different kind of princess.
Princess Elizabeth is brave and quick to act. After being attacked by a dragon, she doesn’t cower in the remains of her castle, she swiftly takes matters into her own hands, throws on a paper bag and gets to work. Princess Elizabeth is smart and resourceful, cleverly using the dragon’s own hubris to goad him into tasks that eventually leave him harmless in a deep sleep. She’s also confident and knows her own self worth. When Prince Ronald tells her she is an ash-covered mess of tangled hair in a dirty paper bag Elizabeth doesn’t become self-conscious or upset, nor does she react in anger. She simply calls him out for what he is – “a bum” – and moves on.
In a world where a “prince” much like Ronald can be elected to our country’s highest public office (hey, both their attitudes towards women AND their names sound the same!), I feel like now, more than ever, it’s important to show my daughter positive female characters and role models. I want her to see that there’s more to being a woman, or even a princess for that matter, than just wearing a pretty dress; that heck, she can be wearing little more than a paper bag and still be able to outsmart the brutish dragons and the not-so-charming princes she’ll have to face throughout her life.
While I’m pretty sure right now my daughter thinks The Paper Bag Princess is just a funny book with a princess, a prince, a dragon and the word “bum” at the end of it, for me, it’s one of the first steps in showing her what a strong, independent girl looks like. It’s my small fight against the negative stereotypes about women I know she’s already being bombarded with.
And can I just say, it’s nice to read her a princess story where the girl doesn’t get married to a prince she barely knows in the end for a change!
What are some of your favorite picture books that feature strong female characters?
I’m always looking for more gems to share with my daughter!
Grab your own copy using this link, and we make pennies!