The Princess in Black: An Inconclusive Rumination, guest post by Laura MacDonald

For anyone who remembers my series on Princess Picture Books (or just anyone who knows me IRL/at all) you know that reimagined and/or feminist princess stories are kinda my thing. Needless to say, I was very excited about The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale (2014).

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Here comes the “however,” though: however, now that I’ve read it, I find myself a little conflicted. Thus commences my first ever Book Wars post without any kind of truly conclusive opinion.

To start, here is a list of my Undisputed Likes:

  • Great colours and fun illustrations.
  • As far as all the technicalities of an easy reader/chapter book go, this is a success: simple (but not simplistic) and accessible sentences, the story is engaging and full of action, and, overall, I find it nicely suited to it’s 5-8 year old target audience.
  • Princess Magnolia’s horse spends his days disguised as a unicorn by the name of Frimplepants, ‘nough said.
  • A child (Princess Magnolia) dupes the clueless adult (Duchess Wigtower), thus giving child readers a sense of power.

Now, let me take you on the rollercoaster-esque mental journey I experienced while reading The Princess in Black:

I love that when we first meet Princess Magnolia she is unabashedly feminine. Gimme pink, gimme frilly, gimme sparkly all damn day. I am a huge proponent of simultaneous femininity and badassery.

But, then we start Chapter 2 with,

Princesses do not run. Princesses do not stuff frilly pink dresses into broom closets. Princesses do not wear black (Hale and Hale 8).

And my internal monologue goes, SAYS WHO???!?

So we now have a very deliberate shedding of femininity in order to become the Princess in Black, aka the heroic alter ego of Princess Magnolia who is off to fight monsters. When I read this, first I get a little angry (as you may have noticed), and then I get rational and think long standing ideologies/stereotypes state that princesses are only ever “prim and proper” and never do a thing for themselves, so that’s who says. Which is all fine and dandy, but then I think of all the children (let’s be honest, girls because as a society we still seem to have a problem with allowing boys the opportunity to explore femininity) who will read this book and not have someone there to help them question such definite statements about what princesses do and do not do. This worries me.

But THEN, I started thinking about Superman, and Spiderman, and Batman. And even with my limited knowledge of super heroes, I came to the conclusion that if they can all have disguises and alter egos why can’t Princess Magnolia? So I forgave the shedding of femininity because that is not really what this turns out to be.

This was followed by the thought that despite the fact that the very text itself says “princesses do not” we have a single princess in this story who is both the frilly and pink princess and the Princess in Black. And this leads me back to, okay this is kind of great, but I’m still worried about readers without the ability to read into that.

Next, we have the subplot of Duff the Goat Boy, a boy who takes care of goats. He watches and cheers as the Princess in Black defeats the monster who has escaped from Monster Land into his goat pasture. I like Duff. He has a moment where he realizes that the Princess in Black reminds him of Princess Magnolia and begins comparing everything he knows about the two. He thinks,

What a clever disguise that would be! No one would suspect a girl in glass slippers. 

He ultimately dismisses the notion, but I think this is a great line. In underestimating femininity, he gives it power. Proving that society as a whole should maybe start suspecting girls in glass slippers of being super heroes because they most certainly have the capabilities.

Then he has an idea of his own. He makes his own costume and becomes the Goat Avenger, in hopes of someday fighting beside the Princess in Black. So we now have a little boy who actually aspires to be like his female super hero/idol. That is a plot twist I can get behind!

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(pardon the glare, this Starbucks is not ideal for photo taking)

So I guess if I have to conclude, my take on The Princess in Black is that I really want to like it, but its not quite there for me.

What about you though, dear reader, have you read The Princess in Black? Let me know!