No Damsels in Distress: Clever Girls in Fairy Tales, Folklore, and Princess Stories

no damsels in distress a book long enough

Mention the word "princess" to many moms and concern arises that maybe it's not so great to inundate our daughters with tales of damsels in distress waiting patiently to be rescued by a prince. In reality, oral folklore has featured strong female characters for centuries, but the written form of these tales has just begun to catch up in the last several decades.  In addition to these traditional tales, modern authors are penning "fractured fairy tales," in which a traditional story is turned upside down. Today, in honor of Women's History Month, we'll take a look at both traditional and modern tales that feature girls who take the bull by the horns, and rescue themselves (and others)! I also hope you'll check out other posts that, like this one, are part of the Multicultural Kid Blogs Women's History Month Celebration!

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole

First published in 1987, Cole's comic masterpiece has withstood the picture book test of time and remains popular to this day. Princess Smartypants would rather spend time with her pets than get married, but her parents insist. She tricks every annoying suitor in one clever way or the other (including turning Prince Swashbuckle into a slimy frog with a kiss), until word gets out and her would-be husbands finally give up. The hilarious illustrations make this book one not to miss.

Kate and the Beanstalk by Mary Pope Osborn and Giselle Potter

A resourceful and brave Kate takes the place of lazy, dimwitted Jack, avenging her family and outwitting the giant. The folk-art illustrations enhance the tone of this fun, spunky and wholly original retelling.

The Emperor and the Kite by Jane Yolen and Ed Young

Djeow Seow, literally, "the smallest one," is the youngest child and only daughter of the Chinese Emperor, who is much more interested in his four older sons. But when the Emperor is trapped in a high tower, only the tiny princess has the resource and skill to save him by using her kite.

Part-Time Princess by Deborah Underwood and Cambria Evans

This unique picture book features a protagonist who loves glitter, tea parties, and frilly dresses, but isn't afraid to slide down a fire pole, play in the mud, lasso a dragon, and play leapfrog. She dances with a handsome prince:  "Maybe I'll marry him when I grow up. But right now I'm too busy." I love that this book shows that girls don't have to choose between sparkles and strength.

Pretty Salma: A Little Red Riding Hood Story from Africa by Niki Daly

This clever retelling of the well-known fairy tale takes place in modern-day Ghana, with the traditional wolf being replaced by Dog. Just as with Little Red, Pretty Salma talks to a stranger despite being forewarned, but in this version, she also works to rescue Granny by donning a bogeyman mask to scare Dog away.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko

Oh how I love this book. It goes like this: Princess Elizabeth is supposed to marry Prince Ronald. A mean old dragon comes and sets fire to everything and steals Ronald away. Elizabeth puts on the only item that survives the fire -- a paper bag -- and sets out to rescue her beloved. After outwitting the dragon, Elizabeth finds Ronald, who balks at the fact that Elizabeth doesn't look like a "real princess" anymore. Elizabeth's response is really funny, as is the book's deadpan ending: "They didn't get married after all."

Fiona's Luck by Teresa Bateman and Kelly Murphy

The king of the leprechauns is tired of all the people in Ireland soaking up all the good luck, so he orders it locked away, resulting in a famine. Clever Fiona tricks the king into making a hole in the oak chest in which he's locked the luck away. Kids will love the magic, battle of wits, and plucky Fiona.

The Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Campbell Ernst

It looks like the Gingerbread Girl is headed the familiar route of her ill-fated brother until she uses her licorice hair to lasso the wily fox and avoid a similar fate. This is one smart cookie!

The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke and Kerstin Meyer

It takes a lot of practice and even more perseverance, but Princess Violetta becomes a knight just as nimble as her obnoxious brothers. But then the king announces a jousting tournament in which the winner will earn Violetta's hand in marriage. Fortunately, Sir No-Name arrives, wins handily, and strides over to the king to receive his prize. He removes his helmet, and the king is astonished to learn that Sir No-Name is actually Violetta herself. The Princess Knight chooses her own prize of freedom.

The Seven Chinese Sisters by Kathy Tucker and Grace Lin

Each of the seven Chinese sisters has a special talent, which they use to save the youngest from a dragon, in this modern retelling of the Seven Chinese Brothers. 

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and Meg Hunt

I'm very excited about this brand new picture book, which is due out in early May from Chronicle Books! This time Cinderella is a mechanic who uses her fix-it skills to keep her mind at work as a way to escape life with her stepmother and stepsisters. Fast forward to the ball and she uses her mechanical knowledge to repair the prince's spaceship. In the end she becomes the permanent royal mechanic! The Prince is rendered as a person of color, too, which makes this book even more valuable as a fractured fairy tale, because even more readers will see themselves in the story.

The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie

Princess Sue waits patiently to be rescued from her tower, only to find that the prince who comes to her aid decides to put her in a penthouse in, you guessed it, another tower. But a dragon flies by, Sue invites him to tea, and together they plot a way to escape the boredom of a life with no adventure. 

Thunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen and Kadir Nelson

This is a fantastic tall tale featuring an African-American girl who takes on the American Wild West, taming lightning and a couple of twisters along the way. Pair it with Swamp Angel for even more tall tale fun featuring a female protagonist.

Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen and Heidi Elisabet Yolen Stemple

In this picture book send-up to all that is not frilly and fluffy, readers learn that "some princesses wear their jewels while fixing things with power tools," and "not all princesses dress in pink, some play in bright red socks that stink." The sparkly crown that stays put and appears at the end of each rhyming refrain serves as a gentle reminder that the world is made up of all kinds of princesses. Stemple's bright artwork reinforces this notion, as the princesses appear in not just varying outfits, but differing skin colors, too. 

O'Sullivan Stew by Hudson Talbott

Kate O'Sullivan saves her family from hanging for stealing a stallion by spinning tales to entertain the king. Her inventive imagination makes for wonderful storytelling!

Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson and Kevin O'Malley

Cinder Edna was published when I was brand new to the library world and story times, and I fell in love with it the first time I read it. Cinderella and Cinder Edna are modern-day neighbors. While Cinderella's story follows the traditional arc, Cinder Edna perseveres with a can-do attitude. She takes the bus to the ball in her comfortable loafers and meets Prince Charming's geeky younger brother, whom it turns out loves a good joke, cutting a rug, and has a great attitude to match Cinder Edna's. Cinder Edna's spunk and positivity make her a great role model, and the message stays light and fun due to O'Malley's satirical illustrations.

The Princes in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale and LeUyen Pham

This brand new early chapter book makes a great crossover tale. It can be read aloud to younger kids in one sitting, or enjoyed in more than one reading by kids just branching into chapter book reading. It's the first in a series of books that features proper Princess Magnolia who sips tea with a duchess by day and transforms at night into The Princess in Black, a superhero-slash-ninjalike figure who fights monsters. I absolutely adore Pham's artwork (I love all of her books!) and Hale's reputation as a fine storyteller precedes her. Don't miss this brand new series! Boys and girls will love its plucky heroine. 

Sister Tricksters: Rollicking Tales of Clever Females by Robert and Daniel San Souci

Trickster tales make up some of the most beloved folklore. Children enjoy stories in which one character outwits another, and this compilation of tales that feature a female protagonist is not to be missed. All of the tales come from the American South, and are retold from the 1904 compilation At the Big House, which was narrated by Aunt Nancy and Aunt 'Phrony, fictional cousins of Uncle Remus. Kids will enjoy meeting Molly Cottontail, Miz Grasshopper, Miz Duck, and Miz Goose, all of whom trick their male counterparts in varying stories. As At the Big House author Anne Virginia Culbertson wrote, "A women sees all 'round and over and underneath and on both sides of a thing [while] a man's just trying to stare plumb through it." 

Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls by Jane Yolen and Susan Guevara

A vibrant collection of thirteen global folktales for readers ages 9 and up. Readers will meet strong women from Africa, Europe, Asia, and America.

Cut from the Same Cloth: American Women of Myth, Legend, and Tall Tale by Robert San Souci and Brian Pinkney

You've heard of John Henry, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed. But what about Annie Christmas, Sweet Betsey from Pike, or Sal Fink? Meet female tall tale characters from the American South, Mexico, the Hawaiian islands, and Canada in these legendary tales of strong women.

Meet more clever girls in picture books here!

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"Frozen" Chapter Books: 10 Titles for Kids Who Love the Disney Movie

Perhaps, like me, you've noticed that, more than  a year after its release, the obsession with Disney's movie Frozen doesn't seem to be peaking out yet. I have to admit I loved the film myself. I have two sisters who live very far from me and whom I love and miss more than words can express. The themes of sisterly sacrifice, bravery, and being true to oneself touched me deeply. I think it's the best Disney movie I've seen since Finding Nemo.

Your kids may have loved Frozen for different reasons, like the transformed icy world, Elsa's magic, but uncontrollable, powers, or the adventure that Anna embarked upon to bring her sister back home. Many quality chapter books touch on these same themes. Here are 10 chapter books that I highly recommend for kids ages roughly eight to 12 who can't get enough of Frozen.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

I'm expecting this novel to make a strong showing in next week's award announcement (think Caldecott, Newbery, American Library Association Notable Children's Books and more) for the best children's literature of 2014. This novel is based on the Scandinavian folktale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." It stars 13-year old Astrid, who was separated from her sister by their aunt and uncle and sold to a goat herder as an unpaid laborer. Astrid survives a bleak existence by remembering the fairy tales her mother told her before her death. Astrid steals the goat herder's money, takes a fellow "captive" with her, grabs her sister from the aunt and uncle, and journeys to escape 19th century Norway to the promised land of America. A beautiful story in which elements of history and fantasy are woven together in fairy-tale fashion. Margi Preus is an author kids don't want to miss, (my daughter loved one of her previous novels) and this may be her best chapter book yet. 

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Read my review of this magnificent chapter book here.

Winterfrost by Michelle Houts

According to Danish tradition, you never ignore or neglect a nisse, a magical creature similar to an elf or a troll. Unfortunately, one Christmas 12 year-old Bettina forgets to leave one a treat and mischief ensues. It turns out the nisse has stolen Bettina's baby sister and she must go on a wintry adventure to return her to the family. Lots of magic, some tiny, cute creatures, and a dose of courage all make for a fun chapter book.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine 

I'm sure you've heard of Ella Enchanted, but did you know that Gail Carson Levine wrote a bunch of other very fine middle grade fantasies starring strong princesses? Normally-reticent Princess Addie transforms into a brave adventurer when she decides she must save her overprotective older sister from the Gray Death. Get ready for dragons, ghosts, gryphons, fairies, and more as Addie embarks on a quest to rescue a beloved sibling.

East by Edith Pattou 

An earlier (2003) novel based on the fairy tale "East of Sun and West of the Moon," East features a young girl on an epic journey. It received starred reviews from two major children's literature journals. East, the last child of a large Norwegian family, ventures on an icy quest when a bear shows up at her door to claim her birthright. Mythology and fantasy intertwine in this chapter book told in multiple voices, which would be best appreciated by readers around ages ten and up.

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

When Liesl's father dies, her greedy stepmother locks her in the attic, but Po, a spirit who hails from the Other Side, helps her to escape. They embark upon a journey to bury Liesl's fathers ashes alongside her mother's. Along the way, a missing alchemist's spell, a mix-up, and a chance encounter fill out a tale of friendship, healing, and adventure. I have yet to meet a fantasy chapter book reader who didn't rave about this book, which is a mix of fairy tale and farce.

Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby

Icefall won a ton of awards the year it was released, including the prestigious 2012 Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery novel. A Viking king sends his three children to ride out a war in a supposedly impenetrable fjord, with warriors to guard them. All too soon, it becomes obvious that a traitor exists among them. The siblings, two sisters and a brother, must fight for their very survival in this epic tale of myth, mystery, and adventure.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Breadcrumbs, which garnered four starred reviews and was named a best book of 2011 by four different publications, is a clever retelling of the Snow Queen. Hazel is a 10 year old Asian adoptee who's parents are divorcing. She's bullied and her best friend Jack seems to be drifting away. When he's hit in the eye with a magic shard of glass and follows the Snow Queen into the woods, Hazel embarks upon a fantasy-laden journey to save him. Although Breadcrumbs is a fantasy, it heavily relies on themes of realistic fiction. That means kids not only get to engage in a mystical adventure, they also get to see the protagonist learn that her inner strength means more than any friendship ever could. 

The Bravest Princess by E. D. Baker

E. D. Baker is a consistently popular author with fourth and fifth grade students because of her knack for writing humorous fantasy/fairy tales with strong girls at their center. Both of my girls,  and many, many kids at the school library, love her books. The Bravest Princess is the third book in Baker's series that features Annie, Sleeping Beauty's little sister. In this adventure, Annie is sent to help Snow White find a husband, as her father insists she be married. Of course, it turns out that some spells are afoot, and Annie embarks on a fantasy adventure to set things right. Readers will recognize characters who appear from well-known fairy tales and enjoy the comical tone.

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

Don't miss out on this amazing winter survival tale, with a girl at its center, which I reviewed here.

Link disclosure: A Book Long Enough is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to That means if you purchase a book through an Amazon link that appears on my site, I receive a commission.