In 1980 a picture book was published that upturned the traditional fairy tale princess stereotype and provided a revolutionary look at the role models portrayed in young children’s stories. Since then over 7 million copies have been sold and the book has been translated into many languages. To mark the 40th anniversary of The Paper Bag Princess Canadian children’s publisher Annick Press have produced a special edition with forewords by Chelsea Clinton and writer Francesca Segal and also an afterword from Ann Munsch with Robert Munsch providing an insight into the inspiration behind the story.
This is the story of a princess. The princess Elizabeth, who is all set to marry her Prince Charming, or in this particular case her Prince Ronald. All these plans are frustrated when a dragon smashes into the castle and whisks Ronald away after first burning all the princess’s clothes. Elizabeth is remarkably unfazed by this and donning a paper bag she sets off after the dragon to rescue her Prince. She outsmarts the dragon using her quick wits and saves Prince Ronald. The ungrateful prince tells off Princess Elizabeth for looking ‘a mess’ and says she must return when she is ‘dressed like a real princess.’ Elizabeth tells Ronald that although he may look like a real prince he is in fact ‘a bum’ and with that she skips off happily into the sunset without him.
This is a short story that would make a relatively quick read yet it says a great deal. The themes addressed in this alternative fairy tale include gender stereotyping, the importance of not judging people on appearance and learning to develop positive self-esteem. The happy ending for Elizabeth may not be the conventional one that the reader expects but it is nonetheless a happy one. The bright illustrations by Michael Martchenko are child friendly and add to the enjoyment and understanding of the text. The one depicting the prince and princess at the start of the story is rather telling, I feel. The besotted princess is shown gazing adoringly at the prince while he has his back to her and wears a rather snooty expression. Perhaps a hint of what is to unfold.
This special package to mark the 40th anniversary contain interesting extras that add to the overall appeal of the story. There is a forward by Chelsea Clinton describing how much they loved reading this book as a family with her children and as she remarks:
“I think it is critical that our daughter and our sons and all our daughters and sons grow up to believe they can defeat their own dragons and rescue themselves”
The inspiration for this story as described by Ann Munsch is rather lovely. When she and Robert Munsch worked together in child care centres in the US in the 1970s he started telling stories to the older children while the younger ones slept. These stories often involved princes and princesses, dragons and castles and the hero was always the prince. Many of the children at the centres came from single parent families in which the mothers were truly being heroic and from this observation the Paper Bag Princess was born.
I greatly enjoyed rediscovering this classic and hope it continues to reach a wide audience for many years to come.
Thank you very much to Amy Dobson and Annick Press for kindly providing my review copy. The anniversary edition is published on 20th February and is available to buy in all good bookshops or online
Annick Press have produced this lovely trailer featuring Robert Munsch to mark the anniversary.