Growing up, the stories of Robert Munsch were required reading, and to this day I can still recite many of them word for word. From the gleeful chanting of Mortimer, to the chaos of Moira’s Birthday, to the tender tears of Love You Forever, I delighted in the crazy whimsical world that was Robert Munsch. To this day, if I come across one of his books, I stop to sit and read, and I get caught up in that world once again. Although I loved all of his stories, there was one that stood out as my favourite, so much so that my childhood copy did not survive into my adult life, so tattered were the pages. This story was The Paper Bag Princess, and having recently re-read it, I’ve fallen in love all over again.
The Paper Bag Princess tells the story of Elizabeth, a beautiful princess set to marry the handsome Prince Ronald. One day a dragon burns down her castle, destroys all of her possessions, and takes off with Prince Ronald, leaving only a paper bag for Elizabeth to wear. Determined to save her prince, Elizabeth sets out on a rescue mission, and after cleverly outwitting and defeating the dragon, Elizabeth is reunited with Prince Ronald. What follows is one of the most classic endings in children’s literature, when Prince Ronald takes one look at Elizabeth; dirty, covered in soot, and wearing a paper bag, and he tells her to go make herself presentable and return when she looks like a princess once more. At this point Elizabeth replies, “Ronald…your clothes are really pretty and your hair is all neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.” The book ends with the image of Elizabeth skipping merrily off into the sunset while the caption informs the reader that Elizabeth and Ronald did not end up marrying each other.
As an adult, I appreciate how The Paper Bag Princess reverses the classic damsel in distress situation, and that Elizabeth is such a strong, resourceful, and smart young woman, who realizes that she is better off without a man in her life who treats her with such disrespect. But as a kid, I simply delighted in the adventure of the story, and I would spend hours fending off all potential dragon threats to my sacred sanctuary: my room. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what The Paper Bag Princess instilled in me was that I could be a hero, and the fact that I was a girl was a non issue, because the book made it a non issue. Yet today I look around the entertainment landscape and it is shocking how few strong female characters there are to serve as role models for the generations of young girls coming up behind me. Although things are slowly improving, it really is appalling that this struggle for representation is still ongoing. Therefore, it is with a cautious optimism that I re-read The Paper Bag Princess, and I yearn for the naivete of my youth, when characters were free to rescue their beloved without commentary, simply because it is the right thing to do. The Paper Bag Princess reveals to all who read it, boy or girl, that being brave and standing up for what you believe in are traits to which we should all aspire. I look at the image of Elizabeth happily heading into the sunset, and I think that although our pace is tedious, we are hopefully heading in her direction.