Q: My daughter wants even more books about princesses wearing beautiful, sparkly dresses. I would like her to read books about confident girls whose sense of self is built on their capabilities, dreams, and interests. Do you have any like that – or any in which the princess doesn’t marry the prince?
A: Yes, there are princess stories that feminists can embrace! The trick is to find the ones that will please your daughter as much as they will feed your long-term character goals for her. I would point you to the article by Naomi Wolf in the New York Times on December 2, 2011:
The view from the Children's Reference Desk is that every child is the center of their parents' universe. Every child is like a prince or princess, and each of them is discovering their own power, potential, and relevance. No matter the gender or economic class; princess means person who can do anything, with grace and ease.
You can use these princess books to tackle the tricky conflict between your values and the valid desires of your children. Here's how to do that:
Read a variety. Read multiple versions of the same story. This teaches your children that stories are written or told differently by different people. It reminds them that they can write their own story to suit themselves. This is liberating! Ask us for the Cinderella versions by Climo, McClintock, Sanderson, and Marshall, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses versions by Ray, Mayer, & Isadora. See also various princess stories, such as The Dragon Prince by Yep, Kongi & Potgi by Han,or Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters by Steptoe. There are also collections of international princess stories.
Respect your child's choices. If she says she wants the sparkly one, don't try to talk her out of it, just read it. Expect her to also respect your choices, and so read her the books that make more sense to you as well. For a preschooler, a parent's voice and close physical contact are fundamentally important. For sparkly, see: K.Y. Craft, Ruth Sanderson, Marianna Mayer, & Jane Ray. For anti-sparkly, see The Paper Bag Princess, Bigfoot Cinderella, and Cinder Edna.
Discuss the stories and the illustrations. Being opinionated, even disagreeing with the author or illustrator models good reading habits. Children are amazingly able to believe in a dream world, even when they are told it's not real. Ask questions, like; Would you rather be the kind of princess who has adventures, fights battles, befriends dragons, or has tea parties? See Pirate Princess, by Bardhan-Quallen, Princess Knight by Funke, and The Princess and the Pea by Vaes for girls who embrace traits and activities traditionally associated with masculinity.
Edit the text if you find it offensive. You won't get to do this for very long – she's going to learn how to read soon! Take advantage of this window of opportunity to make cultural adjustments and updates to anything you feel is important. (Writing this post, I discovered that my 15-year-old daughter believed that one of the sisters in Jane Ray's version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses was the shoemaker pictured on the final page, because I thought they should take responsibility for mending all their dancing shoes, so I changed the story. I remember that she and her sister argued with me about this point at the time, but I didn't realize until now that I had won.)
Tell your own story. Make sure to supplement the fantasy stories in fairy tales with the real-life stories of your family's struggles and those of your personal heroes. Try one book from the biography section.
Children ages two to seven repeat actions to master tasks – stacking blocks, tying shoelaces, etc. Repeated reading, or remaining focused on a single topic, is similarly how they build understanding.
Your daughter may revise her sense of self many times, or settle on it early. She is exploring, and you are one of her most important guides. Your support of and attention to her interests is crucial. Right now, it's princesses. It will shift over the years, and will be influenced by all the other people in her life, and the activities you share. She probably won't be sparkly forever.
By the way, all of my suggestions would remain the same if the gender pronoun were changed. Your son is not the only one with a favorite princess & a collection of sparkly dresses.