Possibly the most rambunctious children’s author out there is Robert Munsch, whose characters drive bus loads of pigs to school, vanish beneath layers of permanent markers, and scream in the bath with sufficient volume to summon the police.
All of his (uniformly excellent) picture books employ elements of fantasy, but only once, to my knowledge, did he and his regular collaborator, illustrator Michael Martchenko, depart entirely our real and rational world long enough to include that nemesis of humanity: the green-scaled, fire-breathing dragon.
Yes, it’s The Paper Bag Princess, one of the best kids’ books I know, rife with hilarious prose, ebullient artwork, and the pluckiest heroine this side of Dorothy Gale. Who says girls can’t have adventures?
The plot is a model of efficiency. Princess Elizabeth lives in a castle, and she’s got riches and a boyfriend, Roland, whom she expects to marry. Curly blonde Roland sports a crown and a tennis racket, and just to be sure we get the idea, Martchenko adds a butterfly cloud of hearts around Elizabeth’s smitten head.
Enraged and undaunted, Elizabeth dresses herself in the only garb available, a brown paper bag, and sets off in pursuit of the dragon.
How she overcomes the dragon I shall not reveal, because it’s clever and witty and worth discovering on its own terms.
However, I shall now SPOIL the ending, because this book earns its stripes not merely for its adventurous heart and dragon-dealings, but for what happens when our hero finally sets her heart’s desire free. Sad but true, I must report that Ronald does not act as a true prince should. Instead of being grateful, he chides Elizabeth for showing up dressed like a chimney sweep (or worse). “Come back,” he tells Elizabeth, “when you are dressed like a real princess.”
Elizabeth’s response? No doormat, this girl. No shrinking violet in love with bling and diamond rings. She tells Roland off, is what she does: “Your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.”
So what do you predict, fair reader? Does this book end with wedding bells, or a delightful dance of female emancipation?
Highly recommended, for young, for old, and above all, for those who take the time to read aloud to children.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.” In other work, Rigney is the author of “The Skates,” and its haunted sequels, “Sleeping Bear,” and Check-Out Time. His website is markrigney.net.