The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko was an indelible part of my childhood. As a Canadian, the works of both the author and illustrator were easy to come across, and I read both prolifically. Robert Munsch stories were some of the first ones I ever read aloud in front of friends and classmates. They were the ones I laughed at and felt for and remembered whenever anyone asked me what my favourite books were. I still love many of these books to this day, and I keep an omnibus collection on my shelf. But none of these other stories ever impacted me the way The Paper Bag Princess did.
For those unfamiliar with the story or who haven’t read it in too long to recall, The Paperbag Princess is the story of a princess named Elizabeth whose castle is burned down and her fiance Ronald stolen by a fierce dragon. With her clothes burned up, Elizabeth dons a paper bag, the only thing she could find that wasn’t burned beyond use, and goes after the dragon to rescue Ronald. When she arrives, Elizabeth uses her smarts to wear out the dragon until he collapses from sheer exhaustion, and she rescues Ronald. Rather than being grateful, the prince criticises Elizabeth’s appearance and tells her to return when she looks like a real princess. She informs him that he is a bum and she dances off into the sunset alone.
Originally published in 1980, The Paper Bag Princess was released when my mother was only seven years old. She doesn’t recall when she first read it, but she remembers being deeply empowered by it, thinking that it was about time that a girl got to be a hero. She was a young girl in the days of the Wonder Woman and Bionic Woman TV series, and women as action heroes really spoke to her. The Paper Bag Princess empowered her through her childhood and into adulthood. The story is one of her favourites to this day, and she even has a tattoo of Elizabeth that she had my artistically inclined brother design for her.
I don’t remember the first time I read it, but I spoke to my mother to get the facts straight. I was about two or three years old, and we read regularly. I was a voracious reader from a young age, and eager for a constant stream of new stories before I had the skills to read a book myself. It would have been the nineties, and I was very into anything deemed girl power, so when my mum told me that The Paper Bag Princess was about girl power, I was sold. I confess it wasn’t my favourite Munsch story at the time. While the story is fantastic, it isn’t necessarily his funniest, and I was very into his books for how funny they were. Regardless, I did love the story itself, and I took its girl power messages to heart. Apparently, the very same day that we read the story, my father scolded me for doing something trivial like leaving my toys out, and I informed him that he was a blowhard dragon and I was a princess and so I would always win against him, much to his extreme confusion. My insistence that I was the princess of the story was surely only fueled by the fact that my name is also Elizabeth.
As I have aged into adulthood, I find much more to love about the story than I did as a small girl. The Paper Bag Princess shows us that we can use our wits to win, that all monsters can be defeated, we can achieve anything regardless of how we look and dress, and we never have to tolerate cruel words from the person who is supposed to care about us most. These lessons remain relevant today, and they transcend generations.
I recently received a copy of the fortieth-anniversary edition of The Paper Bag Princess from Annick Press through Netgalley. I am so excited to see that there’s a new edition of the book to bring to new generations of Elizabeths (whether that is the name of the children reading it or not). All children, regardless of gender, can learn the vital messages the story offers up, whether it be from Elizabeth’s triumphs, or from the failures of Ronald and the dragon alike.
This new edition of the story offers up two introductory pieces, one from Chelsea Clinton and one from Francesca Segal, and an afterword from Ann and Robert Munsch. The afterword is perhaps my favourite addition, offering insight into how the story came to be–including a tale of performances of the story that invited eager dads to play the dragon that reminded me of my own dad. The introductory pieces offer up some deeply relatable passages about the ways in which The Paper Bag Princess has impacted generations, especially generations of girls. I do really wish that these introductions had steered away from the cisnormative boy/girl dichotomy, particularly the firm gender roles of girls learning from Elizabeth and boys learning from Ronald, but there’s still something to be gleaned from them.
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko is one of those irresistible picture books that is easy to see why it has been beloved for forty years. It’s the kind of book that belongs in any complete children’s collection. I hope that this new edition allows for the newest generations to gain even more from its store of wisdom and allows for the chance for kids to hopefully find in it a story that helps them love reading.