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:

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!


Beauty by Robin McKinley

“He made a noise somewhere between a roar and a bark, and after an anxious minute, I decided it was probably a laugh. ‘You do not believe  then?’ he inquired.

‘Well-no’ I said, hesitantly, wondering if this might anger him. ‘Any number of mirrors have told me otherwise.’

‘You will find no mirrors here,’ he said, ‘for I cannot bear them: nor any quiet water in ponds.  And since I am the only one who sees you, why are you not then beautiful?'”

Hi, friends!  I promise I didn’t forget you.  It’s just that, when you’re in library school, and reading books about cataloging and coding and reference materials, it sucks all of the time away for reading things you actually want to read.  It seems a little unfair-after all, I went away to school because all I want to do is share books with others, and school gets in the way, big-time, of all that sharing.  So, I’m really sorry.  And I have a stack of good books to tell you about, ok? Actually, this one is on my list of Extra Super Favorites, and has been since I was a teenager myself.  Here’s the story:

Beauty is the self-appointed black sheep of the family.  Awkward and broken-out, she is embarrassed by her nickname and feels ungainly in comparison to her beautiful older sisters.  She takes refuge in reading, riding her horse, and offering pragmatic advice to her sisters. Life isn’t unpleasant for the girls.  However, when her father’s sailing fleet is lost at sea, and the family’s fortune with it, they are forced to leave their city home for the distant country.  Their new home is backed by a forest, eerily empty of wildlife, and the townspeople still pass around rumors of magic…or at least something being “not quite right”.  It is said that once you lose sight of the borders of the forest, it is impossible to find your way home again.

On the way home from a trip to the city, Beauty’s father is lost in a blizzard.  Snow-blinded, he stumbles into the forest and wanders for hours, eventually coming upon a castle.  There, his horse is tended to, and he is provided with food and dry clothing, but his host is mysteriously absent.  When leaving, he picks a single rose-Beauty’s only request for a gift from the city-and is confronted by an enormous, dark beast.  The beast demands either his life, or that he surrender one of his daughters, who must then go and live at the castle.  He gives the man leave to go home to his family and make a decision.  After some deliberation and many protests on the part of her family, Beauty volunteers to go in her father’s place.  And then, you know the story.  The beast, the castle, the magic.  It’s all here, and the parts that have been changed have been changed for the better.

All right, I confess.  I have an obsession-bordering on devotion-with the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.  I’ve read so, so many retellings, and here, friends: I give you the very best one.  Here’s why:  Robin McKinley’s writing is superb.  The story is lush and dark, just like a fairy tale should be.  Furthermore, nothing breaks my heart more than when Beauty magically transforms into a gorgeous princess at the end of the story, or worse, she is preternaturally beautiful from birth and there is no discussion of her personality at all.  I can’t give the ending away, but in this story, Beauty is not beautiful.  (I apologize for the cover of the paperback.  I wanted to show you, so that if you saw it in the library or the bookstore, you’d recognize it, but the girl on the cover doesn’t resemble the Beauty in the book).  Instead, the readers (and the Beast) love her for the merits of her character: her quick wit, love for reading, and practical nature.  She’s strong, capable, and independent.  Coupled with a retelling that retains the spirit of the original, but doesn’t just parrot it back to readers, this book is so lovely.  I’ve read it more times than I can count.  And the quote I gave you at the beginning?  I’m pretty sure I’ve had it memorized since I was fifteen.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

If you liked this one, you might want to try Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, or Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy.  They are stellar!

McKinley, Robin.  Beauty. Harper & Row: New York, 1978. 247 pp.  Ages 14-18.