Book Review: The Paper Bag Princess

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Illustrated by Michael Martchenko has to be my favorite fractured fairy tale. Published in 1980, in at least its sixtieth printing, the story still rings true.

Elizabeth is a beautiful Princess in a castle, engaged to a handsome Prince. On the next page a dragon smashes the castle, eats everyone and burns everything to the ground. Elizabeth finds a paper bag to wear, and sets off to rescue her Prince, Ronald.

When the Princess finds the dragon, [caution, spoilers!] she outwits him and rescues the Prince. He does not appreciate her singed hair, or her paper bag dress. She tells him that he is a bum, and dances off into the sunset alone.

The Paper Bag Princess resurfaced itself from the depths of my memory while I was working on a song lyric for a musical I am writing. The main character gets thrown in the dungeon of a giant’s castle, and meets several fairy tale characters who also got caught, including Goldilocks, the Gingerbread Man and Snow White. They sing a cheery song about how they’ve lost all hope of being rescued:

An excerpt:
WHAT’S THE USE OF WISHING WHEN THE WELLS ARE ALL DRY?
WE’D ESCAPE OUT A WINDOW,
BUT NO ONE CAN FLY.
SO WE’RE LOCKED IN A GIANT’S CASTLE.
LOCKED IN A GIANT’S CASTLE.
AT LEAST WE’RE NOT LUNCH.
SOMEDAY SOMEONE WILL SAVE US
A WHITE KNIGHT
OR A PRINCESS IN A PAPER BAG.
WE’D EVEN SETTLE FOR A COW WHO CAN’T MOO
OR THAT KID WHO EATS GLUE…

I sang the last bit for my wife, and she said, “what’s the bit with the paper bag?” I couldn’t believe it! How had she never heard of the Paper Bag Princess and Elizabeth’s disregard for societal norms? She asked me if the kids would get this subtle and obscure reference to a forty-year old picture book.

And that’s exactly why I’m going to leave the lyric as is. Having just turned forty myself, I’d like to think the story gets better with age, and if my students haven’t read it, they should.

The first time I read this book, many years ago, I was astonished at the honest simplicity of it, and was surprised that no one had thought of it before. Why can’t the Princess be the hero? Why can’t a paper bag dress be a badge of honor? Why do Princesses always have to be beautiful and perfect?

Also, Ronald is a hilarious name for a prince, and the illustrations depict him wearing pointy red shoes and carrying what appears to be a badminton racket. The fact that Elizabeth is smitten with him in the first place is very humorous.

As a kid, I related to Elizabeth, the messy hair, solving the problem herself, heck, even wearing the paper bag. Growing up, for birthday celebrations or costume parties, we would cut holes for arms in a paper bag, decorate it, and slip it over our heads. It was actually a lot of fun.

This is me wearing a paper bag and loving every second of it.

Strangely enough, it seems as if this little slip of a book has appeared on the banned book list for being “anti-family”, was optioned by Universal to make it into a movie with Elizabeth Banks, and has sold over 3 million copies.

The Paper Bag Princess may be a fractured fairy tale, but there isn’t anything about it that is broken.

Please share some of your favorite fractured fairy tales in the comments!

13 comments

  1. I loved this book and read it to my fourth graders every year when we did a unit on fairy tales. CinderEdna, by Ellen Jackson, is another fairy tale I loved sharing. Cinderella and CinderEdna are compared and CinderEdna is an incredible role model for all girls! It’s funny, kids loved it, and it makes a great read-aloud with a wonderful message.

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  2. Alison, thank you for posting about this book. I wasn’t familiar with it either, which is too bad because the theme is awesome.
    Shrek! by William Steig, which I had a copy of before it was made into animated films, is a terrific send-up. He’s warty and nasty and when he meets his even more hideous mate the two of them are smitten. if I had time to go find it I’d share a few lines.Instead, try this link to a Macmillan audio version…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmUC7nsrzlg

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  3. Dear Alison,
    I can’t believe I missed this book, but since I had just graduated from high school when it came out and later had a son, I guess it’s understandable. Thank you for breathing new life into this clever tale and bringing it to the attention of a new generation of reader/actors. I LOVE the pictures of you in your paper bag outfit!

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  4. I have got to find this book and read it NOW! I was “too old” for kids’ books when it came out, and it was already over a decade old before my own girls were born–although we found plenty of other classics from that era in the library. Thanks for the review, Alison. (Also I think it’s interesting that NOTHING WEE ABOUT ME, the cover on Tuesday’s post, also has a dragon face next to a little girl! I sense a theme…)

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