The Surprisingly Dark Worldview Of The Princess In Black Series: A Case Study In Children’s Literature

Having recently read and reviewed the three published books in the ongoing Princess In Black Series [1], I thought that the books provide a useful case study in the way in which even carefree and lighthearted children’s books contain a worldview that is surprisingly dark and deep, far more than meets the eye. When one looks at children’s literature, as I do from time to time [2], or even young adult’s literature [3] one often sees that such works are often viewed as beneath the dignity of being treated with a serious critical and analytical approach. Despite the fact that literature for young people is the sort of book that is the most often read, not least because parents read them to their children and because teachers assign such books all the way through high school as a way of seeking to keep students engaged with literature, or maybe because of this fact, such literature deserves a serious look, not least because it is worthwhile to pay attention to everything, and to consider nothing unworthy of attention, commentary, and friendly appreciation.

The Princess In Black series, so far only three books in length, provides a suitable case study for the serious (if brief) examination of its contents despite being part of the genre of Children’s literature. Several of its reviewers, including Kirkus Reviews, have noted that the novels upend the clichés of its genre as a princess novel. Although the books are directed towards small girls and their parents, the books are written by an accomplished husband and wife team of writers, the wife of whom is responsible for such well-known and award-winning books as the Princess Academy series, Book of A Thousand Days, and Austenland [4], among others. We are therefore dealing with the work of an accomplished writer, and ought to respect it accordingly. Although it may be assumed, perhaps wrongly, that the intended primary audience for the books would be unaware of their deeper meaning, the adults who read such books are likely to intentionally search for deeper meaning and appreciate being notified of it and rewarded by it where it may be found. Even seemingly escapist fiction like the capers of an imaginary princess who, perhaps not coincidentally, is named after the authors’ eldest daughters can be examined for deeper meaning.

There is a great deal of significance in the structure of the Princess In Black series as playing off of a young woman’s dual identity as Princess Magnolia and simultaneously the Princess In Black. That dual identity automatically carries with it several important questions. For one, the titular heroine is clearly forced into a situation of great tension between her need to conform to the decorum of her peers, mostly other princess children of suitably diverse ethnicities, while also protecting the fragile but civilized world her and her fellow elites live in from the depredations of the evil monsters in Monster Land below. More will be said about this shortly. For now, though, let us note that Princess Magnolia is forced into a secret identity by the need to preserve her status as a refined princess who enjoys silly games, ridiculous class-based and likely gender-based rules about finery, and by the fact that she cannot preserve her status as a princess respected among peers while also engaging in the warlike behavior that is necessary for her and her fake unicorn Frimplepants to defeat the monsters that continually invade her small principality. Let us also note that Magonlia’s example is contagious—it serves as a model for a young goat herder who resolves to develop his own secret identity as the Goat Avenger, which is all the more necessary since this young boy and his goats happen to dwell on the vulnerable frontier between the elite world of Princess Magnolia and the much darker world of Monster Land.

There is an obvious solution to the underlying problem of the continual depredations of monsters from Monster Land in the frontier areas of Princess Magnolia’s small principality, and that would be to close the hole that enters into Monster Land, so that the appetizing smell of goats would no longer waft into the hungry and cramped and resource-poor areas of Monster Land. Yet this option is not chosen. Alternatively, Magnolia could mount an assault on Monster Land and expand her own principality at the expensive of the monsters below. Yet this option is not chosen either. Instead, like the contemporary West, Princess Magnolia rules over an effete and prosperous state that lacks any kind of martial fervor despite the fact that the space and resources of her land represent a major pull factor to the powerful if rather stupid monsters who are motivated mainly by their lusts and desires and appetites and lack sound tactical, logistical, or strategic thinking. Yet Princess Magnolia has no larger strategic goal, as she remains on the defensive, shows little inclination to engage in decisive attacks or build a coalition of the willing to stop the invading monsters for good. Such a decision bodes well for future volumes of the Princess In Black series, but not for the well-being of her principality or its neighbors, considering the havoc that one hungry bunny horde alone was able to wreck on her vulnerable land. Fond readers of this series will not likely think highly of the danger of immigrant or refugee hordes who are attracted to Western countries by the similar desolation of their homelands and similar pull factors of more space, a peaceful population that has lost its martial fervor, or even its seeming capacity for self-defense, and luxuriant living.

Even in looking at the characters of the story, there are some obvious questions. Where are the parents? It would make sense for Princess Magnolia to socialize mostly with girls at her age, and given that there is no obvious romantic subtext, except perhaps for the goat herder, the only male character of any kind to show up so far in the series with any kind of importance, but the absence of parents is somewhat alarming. As Magnolia is a princess, one would assume that she has parents who are king and queen. Somebody, after all, trained Magnolia in fighting skills, and somebody made her castle a secret lair that Batman would be proud to have, and Magnolia is far too young to have accomplished all that, even if she is a bit of a Mary Sue (probably intentionally so). Yet her parents are nowhere seen, nor even mentioned. The only adult of any significance to show up in any of the three stories so far as is a rather nosy Duchess, presumably from another realm or another part of the same realm, who tries and fails to discover what Princess Magnolia is hiding as she leaves the castle repeatedly to thrash invading monsters. There are even few nameless adults who show up without being part of the dialogue—A waiter briefly appears in one of the stories, taking away the brunch at the café when the time to eat brunch has passed, but Magnolia appears to be without a lot of servants, who would normally be responsible for her dress, but who might not be able to be trusted with her secret identity. Even Batman needed his trusty butler Alfred, though, and it is likely that in the face of increasing stress that Magnolia may need to build trust in someone else to buffer her from the irritations of her double identity, and to help make up plausible excuses.

In different ways, the stories both affirm and critique ideals of feminism. For one, Princess Magnolia is made ridiculously competent as a fighter of monsters, and also a very loyal friend to her fellow princesses. Yet the stories show her under a great deal of strain as she switches back and forth between her identities, and show her isolation given the fact that she has so few people in whom she can trust with her burden. In providing girls with a very strong heroine, the stories encourage girls to grow up as their own Mary Sues, competent in many different areas of life, but at the same time, the books also show the lonely side of secret identities and the resulting lack of trust in others, the immense pressure that comes from having to be two people at the same time, and the fact that being a good monster fighter often means that one is less than perfect as a princess, and with that comes a fair amount of judgment from others. The stories therefore serve both to encourage and warn girls that their desires to do everything come with a price, a price all too familiar to contemporary women (and men) who are simply pulled in too many directions and spread too thinly.

What can we learn by looking at children’s literature, like The Princess In Black series, with a serious and critical eye. For one, we can recognize the skill that it takes to write children’s literature that is fun for all ages, and recognize the dual track that much contemporary literature and cinema for children takes, with a superficial level of wild, anarchical fun and a deeper layer that is deeply tinged with irony and melancholy that is designed for the adults in the audience. The presence of multiple layers of meaning means that children’s literature is an appropriate avenue for searching critical and textual analysis that takes advantage of the dual audience for such works in order to gain deeper insights about what such texts are saying to children as well as to the parents and teachers and other adults in their lives. There are many troubling aspects to children’s literature that we can see by looking at it closely, including blatant efforts at propaganda and corrupt social engineering, and deeply immoral political and moral worldviews, and given the importance of properly raising and instructing children, such matters deserve the thoughtful and critical attention of adults.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/book-reviews-the-princess-in-black-the-princess-in-black-and-the-perfect-princess-party-and-the-princess-in-black-and-the-hungry-bunny-horde/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/book-review-little-lord-fauntleroy/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/book-review-ruth-and-the-green-book/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/12/06/book-review-a-passion-for-danger/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/01/17/book-review-where-is-simon-sandy-3/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/book-review-the-adventures-of-hayden-and-nikki-the-meeting/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/12/12/book-review-papa-tell-us-about-the-bible/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/book-review-believe-student-edition/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/book-review-allegiant/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/book-review-the-princess-within-for-teens/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/book-review-divergent/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/book-review-shift/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/book-review-juvenilia/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/book-review-so-many-reasons-why/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shannon_Hale

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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