One-Minute Book Reviews

May 26, 2007

Babette Cole’s ‘Princess Smartypants’

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A motorcycle-riding princess foils her parents’ plans to marry her off to repulsive suitors

Princess Smartypants. By Babette Cole. Putnam, 32 pp., $6.99, paperback. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

Suppose that you – oh, enlightened parent – want to read your daughter an antidote to all those princess books that encourage her to wait passively for Prince Right. Suppose that you wanted to give her a book that says it’s actually fine to be single. What could you read her besides Barbara Cooney’s beloved Miss Rumphius?

You could pick up Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants, a revisionist fairy tale that has been making children – and their parents — smile for two decades. Princess Smartypants is a motorcycle-riding royal who wants to control her own destiny. Or at least her own ring finger. So when her parents order her to find a husband, she devises tests for hapless suitors like Prince Compost and Prince Vertigo. Only Prince Swashbuckle passes, and she turns him into a toad “so she lived happily ever after.”

Cole raises this story to a higher power with pictures witty enough to delight even children who don’t get all her plays on words. When Princes Smartypants orders Prince Grovel to take her mother shopping for underwear, the queen holds up a pair of oversized bloomers as a clerk tries to tempt her with bikini briefs with a heart on them. One critic has called this book a feminist taming-of-the-shrew tale in reverse. It may remind you less of Shakespeare than of the moment at the start of the movie of Bridget Jones’s Diary when extra-large underpants flash across the screen.

Best line/picture: “Because she was very pretty and rich, all the princes wanted her to be their Mrs.” Princess Smartypants is definitely not beautiful in the usual princess-y way. She has big red nose, ping pong ball eyes and flyaway hair. So the subtext of this line is: You’re pretty if you think you are. It tells girls that there are many kinds of beauty, and the kind shown in most princess tales is only one of them.

Worst/line: Princess Smartypants tries to hide her laughter when Prince Fetlock is thrown from a horse. You might see this as sadistic. But it’s clearly intended as slapstick, a form of humor that appeals to its age group and that in context is obviously not intended to be taken as a model for real-life behavior.

Published: 1987 (Putnam hardcover edition), 1997 (Putnam reprint).

Furthermore: Cole is an award-winning English author and illustrator who has written many other popular books for children. They include Prince Cinders (Putnam, 1997), a revisionist Cinderella, that is as amusing as Princess Smartypants.


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© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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