Picture Book Snob
We Love This Fierce and Funny Fairy Tale
Don't Mess with a Princess! by Rachel Valentine and Rebecca Bagley
A rampaging ogre causes havoc in a kingdom far, far away. Meanwhile, knights are dispatched by the king, who ushers his granddaughters up to their turret, forbidding them from getting involved. But Thea, Leaf and Juno are not the kind of princesses that stay locked in a tower for long!
We purchased this book online during lockdown, and it quickly became one of our most-read stories. There’s so much to love about it: the gorgeous setting, the brilliant characters, the exciting adventure, all of the humour, and the stunning illustrations.
Thea, Leaf and Juno, and their kingdom, are brought to life so completely and convincingly. Everything seems to be in a constant state of flux; the characters and the world they live in. I love books with intricate illustrations and there is so much happening on every page.
Nothing is merely in the background here and every creature (and some plants and buildings) appears to be in motion. Even the king’s sandwich moves as he tips it over with his elbow, startled by the sound of the alarm, while painting his toenails. There doesn’t seem to be anything passive in any of the images; the characters are constantly busy, and all the surrounding animals are acting or reacting.
We see frightened rabbits, frolicking crocodiles, hedgehogs and pigs, concerned goats, stunned teddy bears, and rabid poultry. The birds get involved in the action too. There are anxious puffins, sock-stealing crows, and in one scene, two owls hold up score cards to rate the princesses’ dance skills.
The same frog appears on almost every page. Finding him and seeing what he’s getting up to is enormous fun (we always have a great laugh when he’s being chased by a chicken). His facial expressions and body language add to the atmosphere during many of the more tense moments.
Don't Mess with a Princess is incredibly subversive and constantly plays with expectations. In this story, it's the princesses who are brave. The knights are cowardly and incompetent and try to take credit for all the princesses' hard work.
The king, while lovable, is not much of an authority figure, he doesn't seem capable of commanding all the attention in a room. The king's tiny dog seems cute but is always savagely chewing on items. The tattooed and pierced ogre looks tough and scary but is a gentle giant.
It’s exciting to see three princesses of different ethnic backgrounds. I’ve mentioned before that only 4% of children’s books published in the UK contain a black or minority ethnic main character (the Irish percentage is likely to be even lower). See Cinderella, When a Dragon Goes to School and I Have to Start at School Today if you’re looking for some more diverse reads featured on this blog.
Thea, Leaf and Juno are very "real." They eat regular, rather than fancy, "princess" food (we see them enjoying a hearty and everyday meal at the end). They don't take themselves too seriously; they're laughing away during the award ceremony.
These princesses aren't squeamish or delicate; they're unafraid of getting their hands dirty and willing to do whatever is necessary to reach their goal. They jump out of windows, wrestle crocodiles, face giant spiders and flesh-eating plants, and use their clothes and crowns to fashion rope bridges.
When there isn't a horse available, Juno gallops along with Thea and Juno on a pig. This is another incident that elicits a lot of laughter here and is not something you could imagine a more traditional storybook princess doing. Even though they aren't typical fictional princesses, Juno, Thea and Leaf still embrace interests and activities traditionally considered female.
Juno is just as attached to her mirror as she is to her Gameboy, their dance lessons come in handy, and so do their tights. The princesses carry handbags (and clobber flesh-eating plants with them); they wear dresses, albeit with runners and flat boots. The patchwork quilts they sewed themselves are instrumental in making their escape from the castle.
Leaf, Thea and Juno demonstrate that traditionally feminine pursuits should not be seen as frivolous. They show how girls can like all sorts of different things, even if some of them might seem contradictory.
Princesses tackling ogres might seem extremely modern, but this idea was explored as early as 1697 in Finette Cendron by Madame d'Aulnoy. I wrote more about this when reviewing Cinderella by Chloe Perkins and Sandra Equihua. The main character in Finette Cendron is a fearless and resourceful princess who defeats ogres with her bare hands, while her intended prince is weak and frail.
I don’t know if Finette Cendron directly inspired Don’t Mess with a Princess!, but there are interesting parallels between the two stories. An ogre is captured by resourceful princesses and instead of a prince, it’s the knights who are portrayed as pathetic. Just like in Finette Cendron, matrimony is not the main objective in Don’t Mess with a Princess!, and not one prince even makes an appearance.
There is the suggestion of sorcery; we see dragons, ogres, an enchanted forest, giant spiders, unicorn-related signposts and one for Troll Valley. We know this is a magical realm. But the real magic comes from the princesses' bravado and resourcefulness, as well as the extraordinary illustrations.
Despite the fairy tale setting, there is a gloriously ‘90s vibe. There are no mobile phones, but we see a Gameboy and a Walkman, and Leaf is dressed similarly to the grunge girls of that era. I’m sure I had an outfit exactly like hers when I was a teenager!
Author Rachel Valentine has had an incredibly varied career that includes school dinner lady and physiotherapist, as well as writer. This is the first book I've read by Valentine but she has published several picture books that all look superb. Am looking forward to discovering more about Marmaduke and Audrey the Amazing Inventor is going on my must-read list too.
Artist Rebecca Bagley has created comic books and worked in publishing as a children's book design before becoming a picture book illustrator. You can see all the books she has worked on, and images from them too, on her website. They look fantastic, especially the series about Willow Wildthing, who gives the impression she would get along very well with the princesses of this story!
Don't Mess with a Princess! is an incredibly striking and memorable picture book; the plot is innovative and subversive, and the illustrations are extraordinary. The three princesses are wonderful characters and I hope this is just the first in a series. I would love to read more about their further adventures.
P.S. Read all about the feminist origins of classic fairy tales, and how they were intended to be a critique of the patriarchy, in this fascinating article by Melissa Ashley.
Title: Don't Mess with a Princess!
Author: Rachel Valentine
Illustrator: Rebecca Bagley Publisher: Puffin Books (an imprint of Penguin)
Publication Date: 22nd August, 2019