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Whenever the question of feminist books for little girls is raised, Babette Cole's 'Princess Smartypants', (Picture Puffin), is one that gets recommended. Originally published in 1986, it's seen as an alternative to old fashioned fairy tales in which the inevitable ending is the happy ever after marriage of princess and prince.
The heroine of the title lives happily with her motley collection of animals, but lots of princes want to marry her. To foil them, she sets her suitors tasks which none of them can accomplish - until the arrival of smarmy Prince Swashbuckle, but Smartypants knows how to deal with him.
As a challenge to the assumption that a princess does little more than look pretty, Smartypants holds her own - she rides a motorbike, can defeat anyone in a roller disco marathon, and is fiercely protective of her independence. The cartoon illustrations add humour, the funniest moment being a kiss that turns a prince into a giant toad, but ultimately Smartypants is little more than a raspberry blow at the pink princess stereotype.
While the main character may break traditional rules, Smartypants is still a part of the princess genre it ridicules, so the idea of princesshood, something many feminist Mums want to steer their children away from, remains desirable. The heroine is described as pretty and rich, the reasons so many princes want her to be their wife. The princes are figures of fun and Smartypants doesn't behave well towards them, she also doesn't deliver on her promise to marry the prince who completes all the tasks. The send up of romantic heroes doesn't leave young readers with anything positive to take from the male characters, who are all either weak, foolish or slimy. While older readers may see the joke, children are unlikely understand the context. By making her demean the male characters I feel that Cole also demeans the main character.
Other problems include the strange use of 'Ms'; in the early pages we are told Smartypants doesn't want to get married, she enjoys being a Ms. This doesn't make sense as married women also use Ms as a title, although I suppose it opens up discussion around the titles we use. Then there's Smartypants mother, the Queen; a keen shopper, it is she who insists that Smartypants finds a husband in the first place. One stereotype may be challenged, but others are compounded.
On the plus side it's a lively light hearted story that pokes fun at the princess cliché and it's certainly preferable to a book full of Disney princesses. For little girls who are drowning in pink princess culture Princess Smartypants while not princess-free is at least Princess Different, but although the main character is an independent spirit who wears motorbike leathers and likes big spiders, she lacks integrity and the storyline is weak.
My 4 year old daughter has owned this book for several months but after the initial 'new book' liking of it, has read it less than a handful of times. She says she likes it, but it's clearly not one of her favourites.
Smartypants is a reactive tale that rebuts a genre, but isn't enough to satisfy as a stand alone story. It may stand out on the shelf as a feminist book for a child, but on closer inspection it leaves a lot to be desired. It's an indictment on the lack of strong female characters in children's books that twenty five years after it's original publication Princess Smartypants is still praised as a challenge to the prevailing literature.