By Maureen Tai, 2 October 2018
“You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.” – Elizabeth
Sometimes, world events spur us to read books. There are books that can help us make sense of complicated or stressful situations, and books that will just make us feel better. This week, I needed to feel better, so I reached for The Paper Bag Princess. In this classic picture book by the legendary Canadian author, Robert Munsch (who shares my birthday, I just discovered), a strong female protagonist – despite all the terrible things that happen to her – keeps her wits about her and makes decisions about her life, and ultimately, her own happiness.
Elizabeth is a princess with straw-coloured hair and a pointy crown on her head. She wears a flowing gown and is in love with Prince Ronald who also has flaxen hair and a pointy crown on his head. There the similarities end. In addition to the look of bored indifference on his face, Ronald wears a jewel-encrusted medallion around his neck like a drug baron. He has a tennis racket balanced on his shoulder, and his red elf shoes are a jarring contrast to his white poet’s shirt and sage green hose. Most tellingly, he has his back to Elizabeth as she gazes at him adoringly.
Clearly not a match made in heaven.
Then disaster strikes in the form of a horse-eating, castle-demolishing, fire-breathing dragon. The creature carries off Prince Ronald leaving Princess Elizabeth bereft of her worldly possessions. Even her clothes have been burnt to cinders, and save for her now bent and badly singed crown, Elizabeth is completely naked. Fuming (pun intended), Elizabeth covers herself with the only unburnt thing she can find, an oversized paper bag (this reminds me of the brown paper bags I used to pack my school lunch sandwiches in). Gritting her teeth, Elizabeth resolves to find the dragon and retrieve the love of her life.
Off she goes on her quest. And of course, because our princess is clever, plucky, confident, tenacious and kick-ass, she succeeds in her mission. But at the end of the day, does Elizabeth really want what she gets?
At this time in our collective global history when true leaders are few and far between, and obstacles to peace and equality seemingly mount from day to day, it falls on each of us as individuals to become heroes and heroines in our own lives, however small or limited or insignificant our efforts may seem to be. We owe it to ourselves, to those who look up to us, and to those who come after us. Now more than ever, we (especially woman and girls) need to be Elizabeths. We don’t need no princely bums.
For ages 5 and up.