Robert N. Munsch's The Paper Bag Princess
illustrated by Michael Martchenko
Book review by Monica Friedman
Princess Defeats Dragon in a Classic Feminist Fairy Tale
For thirty years, children have delighted in the cunning stratagems of Princess Elizabeth, a real princess who “lived in a castle and had expensive princess clothes” and an iron-clad plan to marry a real prince, named Ronald.
Elizabeth, in a lovely medieval gown, appears to be very much in love with her intended, while Ronald is depicted as a bit of an aloof snob, clad in green leggings and carrying a badminton racquet. That’s page one. On page two, Elizabeth loses all the trappings of her royal life when a dragon destroys her castle, sets fire to all her clothes (including those she’s wearing at the time), and makes off with the prince.
Naked, save for some strategically placed smoke clouds, our heroine determines to rescue her prince. A practical girl, she covers herself with the only thing in her kingdom that hasn’t been burnt to ashes: a paper bag.
Finding the dragon is a simple task, “because he left a trail of burnt forests and horses’ bones.” When she reaches the dragon’s lair, however, the dragon is reluctant to engage, having sated himself devouring her home earlier in the day. Asked to come back tomorrow, presumably so the dragon can eat her later, paper bag Princess Elizabeth demonstrates that there’s more to being a princess than fine clothes and fancy castles.
She must engage her intellect to outwit the enemy.
The Paper Bag Princess
Drawing on some Puss-in-Boots strategies to flatter her opponent into submission, Elizabeth convinces the dragon to start showing off, complimenting and cajoling until her opponent depletes his reserves. With no fire left to breathe (as he’s chosen to impress her by burning up one hundred fifty forests) and no energy left to fly (as he’s been persuaded to fly around the world, twice, in thirty seconds) the beast falls sound asleep.
The satisfied princess rushes in to rescue her prince, only to learn that he isn’t the prince she thought he was.
“You are a mess!” Prince Ronald says, without a word of thanks or greeting. “You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled, and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.”
Elizabeth, as we have already learned from her previous acts of self-determination, is not the sort who depends on the validation of a man. Her ardor quickly cools, as she observes, “your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.” She decides not to marry him after all, and instead, goes skipping off into the sunset, alone.
The message of The Paper Bag Princess is one to embrace, the perfect antidote to a long legacy of helpless princesses waiting for a handsome prince to rescue them. Seize your own destiny, this book encourages us. Make do with what we have. Confront our demons. And, of the utmost importance: learn to recognize the difference between a real prince and a bum.
Webmaster's note: When I noticed that The Paper Bag Princess was appearing on recommended reading lists for children who had experienced domestic violence, I asked Monica if she could speak to why.
I can see Paper Bag Princess for domestic violence. The main character experiences a terrible act of violence that takes place in her home and destroys it completely.
The dragon, who is not completely awful even if he is destructive, can stand in for an abusive parent who is sometimes inexplicably violent, but, at other times, interesting, reasonable, or at least harmless.
Also, many kids who are being treated for issues arising from domestic violence have lost everything, since survivors often must leave their homes on short notice. The kids may go from a situation in which they have, like Elizabeth, opulent homes and lots of clothes and toys, to one in which they are homeless and dressed in rags.
And, of course, what's so great about Paper Bag Princess is that the protagonist has such a spectacular sense of agency. At no point does she sulk about everything she's lost. Instead, she orients to the future, makes do with the resources at hand, works hard to address her immediate issues, and, finally, reexamines her priorities and decides to write negative influences out of her life.
Read more of Monica's reviews.
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