Favorite Book from Childhood: “The Practical Princess”

Inspired by the question posed by The Morning News about favorite books of childhood, and because I was too overwhelmed to send them my response, I dug through my kids’ shelves to unearth my copy of The Practical Princess by Jay Williams (better known as an author of the Danny Dunn series for children), illustrated by Friso Henstra.

This certainly was one of my favorite books as a girl, and is the one I choose as an adult because it’s entertaining and clever for all ages. Published in 1969, it’s now out of print. The princess of the title is a formidable heroine, and the main reason this book has endured in my affection:

Princess Bedelia was as lovely as the moon shining upon a lake full of waterlilies. She was as graceful as a cat leaping. And she was also extremely practical.

When she was born, three fairies had come to her cradle to give her gifts as was usual in that country. The first fairy had given her beauty. The second had given her grace. But the third, who was a wise old creature, had said, “I give her common sense.”

“I don’t think much of that gift,” said King Ludwig, raising his eyebrows. “What good is common sense to a princess? All she needs is charm.”

Nevertheless, when Bedelia was eighteen years old, something happened which made the king change his mind.

A dragon moved into the neighborhood.

Of course the dragon demands the princess as his due. How Bedelia responds to this dilemma is both laugh-out-loud funny and smart. When she is subsequently confronted with an unpleasant suitor, she also brings her wits and sense of humor to bear with excellent results.

The Practical Princess does a lot of things, and does them well. It turns fairy-tale tropes on their head, like the princess-demanding dragon, the ugly suitor, the difficult tasks, the suitor’s attempt to take what he cannot have, and a princely rescue. A more recent book, Princess Smarty-Pants, tried to do these same things, to worse effect, I thought. Bedelia is extremely likable, and an excellent role model for young girls, far superior to those namby-pamby Disney ones, who make me glad I have two boys and don’t have to fight against their encroaching influence. Also unlike those Disney damsels, Bedelia is not skinny with a Barbie-like bod. She wears a smashing orange empire-waist dress with pink boots, and could actually be pear shaped! Hensta’s illustrations are distinctive, a mixture of 60’s mod and cross-hatched detail, with brilliant colors that glow forty years on.

Keep an eye out for this treasure in library collections and used bookstores, especially if you suspect that the Disney-ification of the princess trope is as insidious as I think it is. I feel thrilled and fortunate to still have my childhood copy to share with my boys.

One Response to “Favorite Book from Childhood: “The Practical Princess””

  1. Haddayr Says:

    This was my fave, too!