The Practical Princess by Jay Williams surprised me.
Before reading it, I assumed that it was going to be yet another addition to the current craze of feminist reimaginings of fairy tales. I wasn’t entirely wrong about that, however, I was wrong about how I would feel about that.
The other day in our book group, Potato Peel Pie Society, we talked about the new Little Women t.v. series currently in production from Masterpiece. The fear that many of us Alcott lovers have is that modern script writers might interpret the character of Jo March through a modern feminist lens. While we agree that Jo most certainly is an echo of her creator, Louisa May Alcott, who was a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, we sincerely believe that Alcott would have defined “feminist” radically differently from how modern feminists define the term.
My first exposure to Jay Williams was in his Danny Dunn books (you can read our review here). Writing in the 1950s through the 1970s, Williams was writing in a unique time. Many of his books are from the post-war but pre-Woodstock era. The Practical Princess was released in the same year as Woodstock took place. Williams was writing in a time when our country was redefining many of its social constructs. I think his books reveal the tension that Americans were feeling. A desire to cling to what was good about traditional ways of life, to embrace a more full understanding of human capacity, and to somehow manage to eschew the bitterness and angst of the cultural rebellion. A book about a feminist princess written in this era reads differently from one that would be penned in our time.
Like Sleeping Beauty, our princess is gifted with three gifts by fairies at her birth. One fairy makes a present of beauty. Another of grace. And the third fairy, much to the disappointment of the king, endowed the little princess with common sense. The king retorts that all she will need is charm, not sense. But, of course, the king is soon to find out that he is wrong indeed.
Our princess defeats a dragon with common sense, perplexes a bad guy with common sense, and frees herself and an imprisoned prince with her common sense. She is, indeed, very practical. As predictable as this is, Williams builds a story which is interesting and charming anyway. Strong minded but not angry or bitter, our princess is fun to root for. While her father, the king, is dim-witted, and the imprisoned prince is under a spell, there isn’t any angst or social commentary. Just a story of a girl who “likes to mind her own business.” And by “mind her own business” Williams means, take care of herself.
Readers of this blog and friends from Potato Peel Pie Book Community probably know that I am passionate about the goodness of traditional fairy tales. In most cases, I don’t care for re-imaginings. Not because I don’t enjoy reading fairy tales from another perspective but because most re-imaginings seem to strip the fairy tale of that which made it good and worthy in the first place. Instead, they substitute the original with a shallow and modern replacement which fails to really nurture the reader. This little book, however, is strangely satisfying. I won’t go so far as to say that it is in any meaningful way like its sources (Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel), but it is something else worth reading. If nothing else, it is a fairy tale for our time. A time when “common sense” is in short supply. A time when reading about a practical princess can inspire a child to be the hero of her own story instead of a victim of her circumstances. When our princess defeats the dragon with wisdom, without whining and complaining, our kids can see a great example of screwing their courage to the sticking place.
My copy of The Practical Princess is the 2016 Purple House Press reprint of the original version. The Friso Henstra illustration in this book is intriguing. At first, I found it very off-putting. I don’t like muddy colors, and the princess’s dress makes no sense to me at all. That said, the more we read the book, the more all of us found the illustration to be engaging and worthy of study. The pictures drew us in and gave us something to consider beyond the words on the page. The patterning, the coloring, the abstract but realistic faces are all something that seems like a crude marriage between M. C. Escher and Edmund Dulac. And it works. As much as I didn’t like the illustration at first, I found myself being very glad that I own this book, rather than having borrowed from the library, because that illustration can stand up to many viewings. The maps on the end pages in particular, are worthy of study.
My first impressions were wrong. I think that this book is one worth owning. It stands apart from most of its kind and it has good things to tell us, both in word and in picture. For fairy tale purists, I think this one is safe. For modern readers, I think this one is a celebration of girl power. For families looking for stories which feed the moral imagination, I think this is good food. Engaging as a read aloud for many ages, this is a classic picture book which can be enjoyed by independent readers as well.