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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Strong Girls and Wild Women, Part 1: Picture Books

This is the first in a three-part series of book recommendations in honor of Women's History Month.


My favorite library book displays have often been the ones I got to put together in March to commemorate Women's History Month. Here I offer a virtual floor spinner of my most highly-recommended picture books that feature noteworthy female leads. 


Kate and the Beanstalk by Mary Pope Osborne and Giselle Potter

I don't have to tell you that women got dealt the short hand when it comes to mainstream fairy tale characterization. I love Perault and the Grimms, but girls need the opportunity to read about women who take care of business without the help of Prince Charming. Fortunately, fractured fairy tales, which are those told with a twist, are one of the first places to look for strong female characters. In this particular tale, 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.

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Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch

Possessed with a great sense of imagination, Grace enjoys dressing up and acting out her favorite stories. When her teacher announces the class will perform "Peter Pan," Grace decides she's ready to try out for the lead. Then one classmate tells her she can't because she's a girl. And another tells her Peter Pan isn't black. A heartbroken Grace relays her day to her mother and grandmother who take her on an adventure to see a Trinidadian ballet star, and restore Grace's hopes in the process. The self-affirming message of this book is delivered deftly enough to avoid heavy-handedness. Grace's unassailable vivacity and her lovingly-rendered family make this very important book one that won't soon leave your heart.

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Brave Irene by William Steig

Steig was a master storyteller of original fairy tales (think Shrek) and Brave Irene is one of his best. Irene, a dressmaker's daughter, is determined to deliver a ball gown to the duchess despite a raging snowstorm. Irene's tenacity in overwhelmingly negative odds is both endearing and thrilling.

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I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child

I could write another blog post on Brit Lauren Child's artwork, which is remarkable enough in and of itself to recommend her books. Child presents her unique cartoon-like artwork alongside photos of fabrics, wallpaper, and other objects. The interplay of drawing and photographs compliments Child's quirky lead character, Lola. In this book, one of three originals about Lola and her brother Charlie (not to be mistaken with the later television show spin-off books), Lola declares her distaste for peas, fish sticks, and mashed potatoes, among other foods. Charlie tells of his success renaming foods in order to trick Lola into trying them. (Carrots become "orange twiglets from Jupiter.") But, as always, the beguiling Lola has the last word, and her cleverness usurps all. 


Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

As a little girl living early in the twentieth century, Alice Rumphius has three goals: to travel to faraway locales, live by the sea in her old age, and do something to make the world more beautiful. Her namesake great niece relays exactly how Miss Rumphius did just that, from visiting exotic places to spreading lupine seeds all over her village in Maine. This inspiring picture book is a moving tale of a life worth remembering. The late Barbara Cooney left the world a more beautiful place for having written it.


I Like Me! by Nancy Carlson

You can start on self-esteem early with this simple, engaging picture book, which can be shared with kids as young as 18 months old. In short, expressive sentences, the lovely pig on the cover tells why she likes herself, from her cute curly tail to her tiny little feet. She describes what she does to take care of herself, and how when she encounters failure she simply picks herself up and tries again. The bright illustrations lend to this book's happy air, but don't let its simplicity fool you -- the message within is of utmost import.

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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 pretty damn funny, as is the book's deadpan ending: "They didn't get married after all."

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Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs and Paul Zelinsky

I'm a huge fan of American folklore and remember loving Paul Bunyan and John Henry as a kid. But how about a tall tale with a female hero? Angelica Longrider, aka Swamp Angel, built her first Tennessee log cabin before the age of two, snores like a locomotive, and can lasso a tornado. She sets her sights on saving the local settlers from a black bear named Thundering Tarnation, and manages to out-think a long line of male competitors. Isaacs' exaggeration and cadence, typical to traditional tall tales, make this a top-notch read-aloud. Zelinsky was awarded a Caldecott Honor for his primitive oil paintings set in wood veneer frames from which an oversized Swamp Angel peeks out. A rip-roaring, magnified tale of dauntless adventure.