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Thursday, 26 January 2017

Princess Smartypants

Author and Illustrator: Babette Cole
Publisher: First published by Hamish Hamilton 1986, Published by Puffin Books 1996

I learnt today that one of my favourite children's authors of all time has sadly passed away: Babette Cole -

If I could turn back time I would have not only written this particular post earlier, but I would have written to Babette Cole personally to say how amazingly influential her book, Princess Smartypants, was in my life. Thanks to this heavyweight of a feminist, nay, post-feminist piece of children's literature, I decided that, like Princess Smartpants, I would become a 'Ms' (and so I did, from the grand old age of seven) and so I remain a 'Ms' today. Well actually that's not entirely true as really I'm now titled ' Dr', but nonetheless, the feminism remains. 

This was also the very first book I bought for my daughter. It felt like a rite of passage, passing this little piece of inspiration on. It was a special moment, reading 'Princess Smartypants' to Edie for the first time, with its empowering storyline about a kick-ass princess who remains staunchly unmarried. In fact it was truly refreshing, getting away from the constant rhetoric of 'needy princess' stories that so fill our bookshop shelves and children's libraries. And it was even more refreshing to read this fantastic book to my sons, watching their bemused faces as Princess Smartypants out-smarts all her male suitors and lives happily ever after, raising her cocktail  glass aloft. 

What I especially love about this book are the post feminist references, intentional or otherwise (Babette Cole was truly before her time, this book was first published in 1986, which makes it really bold and brave). Princess SmartyPants is pretty, she lies around in a bikini, and also wears leathers, rides a motorbike and wears dungarees. Bright pink and inflections of yellow throughout this book signpost this as 'girly' but it subverts the expectations of gender brilliantly, deliberately. I love that Princess Smartypants has a stream of really hopeless and pathetic male suitors all named appropriately humourous things such as Prince Vertigo ( who can't climb Princess Smartypants' glass tower in order to rescue her) and Prince Boneshaker ( who looks petrified on the back of Princess Smartypants' motorbike). Here's Prince Pelvis being out danced at the roller disco marathon:

These are of course little adult quips, and went way over the head of my children but as I've learnt over the years, pleasing the parent reader is almost as important as winning over the children when it comes to staking out a realm in British children's literature; and Babette Cole's 'Princess Smartypants' does this so well. Even the threat of being hitched to the slimy Prince Swashbuckle is diverted just in time, when the traditional fairytale is flipped right over and Princess Smartypants turns the gloating Prince Swashbuckle into a 'gigantic warty toad' with one fateful princessy kiss.  If only I, like many children of the 1980s, had returned to Babette Cole's work sooner, and thanked her. RIP Babette Cole.

1 comment:

  1. I never felt Swashbuckle was that bad as a kid. He seemed somewhat egotistical, courting Smartypants for the challenge, and a marriage between him and Smartypants was going to work. Really its her parents who should've been turned into frogs.


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