A children’s book review: "Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess" by M.R. Nelson
My suggested age range: for kids 3 and up
Disclosure: I received this book as an electronic advance review copy from the author. Nelson and I have followed each other on social media for some years now, and I consider her a friend.
The Petunia of this charming children’s book is not a “princessy” girl. She doesn’t like frilly dresses and pretend princess parties. She would rather climb trees and play ball and build towers with blocks. She feels lonely in a neighborhood where are all the other little girls dress like princesses and seem to prefer more stereotypically “feminine” past times.
In the end, Petunia learns a lesson about acceptance. But it’s not the lesson you might expect.
Petunia doesn't have to learn to accept herself. She accepts herself and her tomboyish ways just fine. What she learns, when a new princess moves in next door, is an acceptance of others. The new girl wears a flouncy, sparkly dress and a crown. So Petunia dismisses her and runs off in disappointment. But then she learns that the new girl, Penelope, actually likes climbing trees and playing ball and doing all the typically “tomboy” stuff that Petunia likes, too. She just likes to do many of these things while also wearing a princess dress. And then some of the other princesses in the neighborhood also turn out to like some of these things. There are even enough princesses who like sports to have a proper soccer game!
Nelson’s book is a charming story about looking past appearances, and realizing that people are multifaceted. It’s about ignoring the false dichotomy that movies and television and our culture at large often seem to want to impose: that women and girls can be pretty and feminine and vapid, OR they can be serious and smart like a guy, in which case they can’t possibly be interested in shoes or dresses.
It’s the idea that a woman can be a pretty, airheaded cheerleader OR a smart, geeky, badly dressed scientist.** She can be tough and athletic OR pretty and fragile.
She can be a kickass Arya Stark who couldn’t care less what she wears OR she can be a Sansa who sews well and likes dresses.*** She can’t be both.
“The book came out of my frustration with the way our culture seems to write off little girls who love princesses, as if they can’t also love all sorts of other things.”
In another blog post, Nelson wrote of her personal experiences in struggling to integrate her “feminine side” with the career culture of science (she’s a trained biochemist as well a children’s book author). As she wrote in that post:
“. . . maybe we can all work on remembering that most people have multiple interests, and there should be absolutely nothing incongruous about a cheerleader who is also an awesome mathematician.”
Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess, celebrates the idea that, yes, girls can be multifaceted and a “princess” can do anything! As can Petunia, a girl who doesn't want to be a princess. . . and that’s fine, too!
All in all, this is a charming book. The illustrations are adorable and whimsical, and the story moves quickly. There’s lightness and humor, and the story will capture kids’ interest even while parents can ponder (and perhaps later discuss) some of the deeper issues invoked. The book also depicts diversity in more than one way. The titular Petunia is depicted as white, while the princess Penelope (the girl who shows Petunia that you can catch lizards and build towers while in a frilly dress) is black. A number of other characters are shown as people of color, and one of Petunia and Penelope’s playmates is a boy in a wheelchair.
So the big test for any children’s book is. . . what do children think of it? My youngest daughter is seven, and we read this book together last weekend. My daughter is NOT a princess, and has adamantly not been a princess for a while. Did she see herself in Petunia? I think so. But interestingly, it seems that she had already realized that girls could dress like princesses but still play ball and catch lizards. It seems she already knows that people can have a range of interests, and that you should't judge by appearances.
A book is more than a message, of course. What my daughter loved was not any moralizing theme, but the story itself. She loved Petunia and Penelope’s adventures; she laughed at the way that the girls “charm the King of the Forest Lands into joining them for tea.” She loved the pictures and whimsy, particularly the way that Penelope does actually seem to live in a castle.
My daughter was feeling a little ill at bedtime when we read this story together, but she was smiling when we were done. She said she would like the hardcover version. So two endorsements here, from both mother and daughter. My daughter is at an age when she (still) thinks girls can do anything, and this lovely book is one to reinforce that idea with lightness and charm.
**I trained as a scientist (cell biology) and spent years in academic science. It’s true that most of us are casually dressed in the lab, but that doesn’t always mean badly dressed. . . and I did know a few sharp dressers. But the thoughts that Nelson shares in this blog post absolutely ring true to me, too. She's not the first woman I know who was regarded as perhaps being "not serious enough" because she actually liked to dress up instead of wearing the standard grad school attire of jeans and a T-shirt.
***Of course, many fans hope that Sansa will eventually grow up to kick ass in her own way. I've finished the fifth book and it hasn't happened yet (ducking the anger of fervent Sansa-fans now).