The Practical Princess


The Practical Princess by Jay Williams, pictures by Friso Henstra

Here is this week’s book review from Susan Fry – enjoy!

As the mother of two boys, I have to resort to trickery to get my princess fix at bedtime. I seek out books about princesses who don’t behave like traditional girls. I look for slightly darker books that let me revel in glamour, romance, and lavish costumes, while my boys squeal over villains, magic, and dragons. In other words, I reach for The Practical Princess.

The Practical Princess was first published in 1969, and while a later version is also available, Friso Henstra’s illustrations elevate an already-extraordinary story into art. Henstra’s drawings, with cross-hatched colors and intricate, swirling patterns, have a Russian flavor. Their boldness and deceptive primitivism, like medeval woodcuts, instantly set them apart from the bubblegum-pink princess books that clog every library shelf. This roughness is part of the book’s power – the story itself doesn’t pull any punches. It’s best for slightly older children, not just because of length and complexity, but also because of the thread of darkness that runs through the narrative.

Princess Bedelia, like all my favorite princesses, combines beauty with intelligence — the requisite three fairies give her the gifts of beauty, grace, and common sense. Her father, the king, objects at first. “What good is common sense to a princess? All she needs is charm,” he declares. But when the kingdom is in trouble, the king is all too willing to turn to his practical daughter for help.

A dragon, a nasty-looking animal that resembles a squat, fire-breathing anklyosaur rather than the traditional fairy-tale beast, demands a princess to eat. The king is at a loss. Bedelia’s response? “Rubbish! . . . Dragons can’t tell the difference between princesses and anyone else . . . . he’s just asking for me because he’s a snob.” She stuffs a gown with gunpowder, and the dragon swallows it and explodes.

Her father is equally helpless before her next foe, the evil Lord Garp, who threatens war unless Bedelia will marry him. The verbal and visual descriptions of Lord Garp are equally frightening — and original. He’s not simply old and ugly. “His face was like an old napkin, crumpled and wrinkled. It was covered with warts, as if someone had left crumbs on the napkin.” Children in our orthodontist-rich culture will shudder to see Lord Garp’s toothless mouth and skeletal hands.

Bedelia proves her intelligence not just by setting him impossible tasks, but also by doing it in a sweet, diplomatic way. “And you are bold and powerful enough, I know, to perform any task,” she says.

The tasks are stunningly fantastical. Bedelia sends Lord Garp to fetch the Jewel Tree of Paxis and a cloak from the skins of salamanders that live in a volcano. My boys loved the fierce lions and wolves guarding the tree and the gruesomely exploding volcano with its creepy salamanders. When Garp returns with each item, only Bedelia’s common sense reveals that he’s tricking her. The jeweled branch he gives her has no scent, and the volcanic salamander skin burns up in a simple fire.

Garp, a poor loser, imprisons Bedelia in a tower. This is not the traditional, pretty tower of a Rapunzel, but an Escher-eque fortress with dizzying walls and stairs that make Bedelia’s dilemma terrifying. At first, Bedelia hopes a prince will rescue her. But as the days pass, she realizes, “Be practical! If there’s any rescuing to be done, you’re going to have to do it yourself.”

Exploring the castle, she discovers a snoring haystack, which turns out to be the enchanted Prince Perian, whose hair and beard have grown so long they trail on the ground. In a lovely reversal of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, Bedelia wakes Perian and uses his beard to climb out of the tower. The Prince does vanquish the evil Lord Garp, however – by falling on him when Garp tugs on his beard.

As a lovely, final touch, the endpapers of the book depict an antique-looking map of all the events.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications. You will find links to all of her children’s book reviews on our Toys & Books page.

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