Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

“Every fairy tale, it seems, concludes with the bland phrase ‘happily ever after’. Yet every couple I’ve ever known would agree that nothing about marriage is forever happy.  There are moments of bliss, to be sure, and lengthy spans of satisfied companionship.  Yet these come at no small effort, and the girl who reads such fiction dreaming her troubles will end ere she departs the altar is well advised to seek at once a rational woman to set her straight.”

Ben’s parents were assassinated and she ends up as a charge of Queen Sophia, who is determined to shape Ben into the image of proper royalty.  This means diets, dancing, needlework, and genteel conversation, and Ben wants none of it.  As a result of her truculence, Ben is relegated to a locked tower.  Rather than give in to despair or decide to comply meekly,  she begins teaching herself magic.  At night, she practices her craft, trying to gain enough skill to escape.  Her secret lessons are put into use when the kingdom is threatened by a neighboring country, and the fate of the nation rests on her knowledge and skills.

I am constantly searching for fairy tale retellings that do not favor beauty over character, and uphold marriage as the ultimate goal for young women, and I’ve finally found one!  Ben is overweight, though the descriptions of her body are neutral, rather than shaming, and her body never approaches the stereotypical ideal throughout the course of the novel.  (I am always heartbroken when authors begin with a character who is not traditionally beautiful, but she transforms during the story, leaving us with the ultimate message that being conventionally pretty is still necessary for a happy life.)  Even though Ben is taken captive and spends two months as a prisoner of war on a starvation diet, she never becomes slender; I like this nod to the idea of a set weight point for each body, and the acknowledgment that diets do not work.  (Did you know that only five percent of all dieters are able to keep the weight off permanently?  But if businesses can use advertisements to make women feel ashamed of their bodies, they will still spend lots of money on diet products, even if 95 percent of them will not be able to lose weight long-term.)

Furthermore, Ben discusses her marriage with the most straightforward feminist speech that I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and I am so grateful to the author for it!  This book is a treasure: it strikes the right balance of magical fairy tale elements, well-rounded characters, and creative plotting, and the message it sends about beauty and self-reliance is refreshing.  Look for dragons, political intrigue, a hilarious commentary on the odiferous nature of adventures, and a reversal of the kiss-the-unconscious-princess-and-love-will-wake-her-up trope. Though Ben does seem overwhelmingly, unilaterally grumpy and spoiled in the first sections of the book, she develops into a multifaceted, realistic character in the second half of the book, and it’s worth pushing through the crankiness.  Final awesome thing?  The full title of the book: Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of her Recollection, in Four Parts.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.catherinemurdock.com/cm/home.html

Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Princess Ben. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2008. 344 pp. Ages 14-18.

If you liked this book, I think you’d love the graphic novel Castle Waiting, for the strong feminist message.  If graphic novels aren’t your thing, though, you would probably like Beauty, Fairest, Everor Ella Enchanted. There are so many good books out there for readers who love fairy tales, but are disheartened by the beauty myth present in so often in them!

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