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Sun December 15, 2013

New Princesses Rescue Girls From A Distressed Damselhood

Originally published on Tue December 17, 2013 9:31 pm

The princess industry is lucrative: DVDs, dresses, crowns, theme parties. But the story of going to the ball and waiting for Prince Charming is outdated.

So one Southern California mom has created a new princess series with modern sensibilities. Creator Setsu Shigematsu recasts princesses as environmentally conscious and not waiting around to be rescued.

At the heart of her series, The Guardian Princess Alliance, is what animates any fairy tale: simple storytelling.

"Once upon a time, there was a princess named Vinnea," begins the first book, Princess Vinnea and the Gulavores. Vinnea, a member of a collective of diverse heroines more active than their traditional counterparts, is of African descent and is the guardian of plant life.

She protects the kingdom from unwholesome food grown by magic instead of nature.

Shigematsu, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, thought the typical fairy tale needed an overhaul.

"For my daughter's fifth birthday, I decided to write an alternative princess story," Shigematsu says. "The kids really enjoyed it. But what was really surprising was the way the parents responded."

Parents told her she should publish, she said. Avoiding the years-long process of going through a major firm, Shigematsu is self-publishing the initial run of books, available in January.

Role Models For Independence, Still With Nice Dresses

A pair of 6-year-old fairy tale experts, Saya and Ivana, join Shigematsu at her home for an informal reading. When asked to describe princesses, the girls name the typical accessories.

"I think of princesses that have long hair," Ivana says. "They have pretty shoes."

"I think of princesses who have colorful dresses," Saya says.

But Risti Marco, Ivana's mom, says the Guardian Princesses provide better role models for her daughter than the traditional version.

"The Guardian Princesses, they are more like, go there and do it for yourself," Marco says. "You can do anything you put your mind into it. You don't have to wait for anybody. You can work together with Prince Charming and do stuff for the world, but you don't have to sit there and wait for him to rescue you."

Common Core, A Key Selling Point

While the books are already taking on a serious challenge — overhauling the princess archetype — Shigematsu says they're also written to align with Common Core, the educational standards adopted by 45 states.

"This shift that's happening across public education, with the Common Core standards, is to go beyond rote memory," she says. "So we're designing our books to be fun and visually appealing, but beyond that we want our books to teach important moral and ethical principles. There are the Common Core language standards, but the environmental theme will also help connect our books with the sciences."

Gay Kolodzik, owner of Frugal Frigate children's bookstore in Redlands, Calif., says for those in the world of children's literature, a Common Core designation is a pretty big deal.

"When I read all the publisher's magazines that I read every day, if they say 'Meets Common Core,' instantly I go right to it and look through it and see if it's something that suits the store and suits the people that shop here," Kolodzik says. "It gets my attention quickly."

The Guardian Princesses face no evil stepmothers or dangerous spinning wheels. Instead, Vinnea leads a life of social activism against unnaturally modified foods.

"These fruits and vegetables are not natural," Vinnea accuses a villainous gulavore in the book. "They contain a dangerous chemical, admit it. ... Dolo, you've ruined our garden in order to feed the people this unhealthy food."

Glass slippers might be impractical for getting the job done, but just because she's working hard doesn't mean Princess Vinnea can't wear shoes that are practical and pretty.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Many of us grew up with a more innocent kind of cultural narrative. The story of a princess who dutifully waits for her Prince Charming to sweet her off her feet, fix all the problems in her life and take her to that ball. That story is a little dated, at best. So, one Southern California mom has created a new fairytale series with the modern sensibilities called "Guardian Princess Alliance." Matt Guilhem of KVCR in San Bernardino has the story.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: The princess industry is lucrative: DVDs, dresses, crowns, themed parties - the list goes on. However, what's at the heart of the fantasy is still simple storytelling.

SETSU SHIGEMATSU: Are you ready for the story?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Yes.

SHIGEMATSU: (Reading) Once upon a time there was a princess named Vinnea. She lived in a land called Hortensis, a kingdom south of Primos. Princess Vinnea enjoyed spending...

GUILHEM: Princess Vinnea is part of the Guardian Princess Alliance, a collective of diverse heroines more active than their traditional counterparts. She is of African descent and is the guardian of plant life. In the book "Princess Vinnea and the Gulavores," she protects the kingdom from unwholesome food grown by magic instead of nature. Creator of the series, Setsu Shigematsu, a professor of media and cultural studies at UC Riverside, thought the typical fairytale needed an overhaul, so she put pen to paper.

SHIGEMATSU: For my daughter's 5th birthday, I decided to write an alternative princess story. And the kids really enjoyed it. But what was really surprising was the way that the parents responded.

GUILHEM: They told her she should publish. Avoiding the years-long process of going through a major firm, Setsu is self-publishing the initial run of books, which will be available in January. The stories recast the princess as environmentally conscious and not needing to wait around to be rescued. Consulting princess experts, a pair of 6-year-olds: Saya and Ivana, they have some insight into what the standout features of the typical character are. When you guys think of princesses, what do you think of?

IVANA: I think of princesses that have long hair.

SAYA: I think of princesses who have colorful dresses.

GUILHEM: Can you guys think of more things about princesses?

IVANA: They have pretty shoes.

GUILHEM: Although the kids highlight surface aspects of the princess relating to her appearance, Risti Marco, Ivana's mom, says the new Guardian Princesses provide a better role model for her daughter.

RISTI MARCO: The Guardian Princesses they are more like go there and do it for yourself. And you can do anything you put your mind into it. You don't have to wait for anybody. You can work together with Prince Charming and do stuff for the world, but you don't have to sit there and wait for them to rescue you and do stuff for you.

GUILHEM: While the books are already taking on a serious challenge - overhauling the princess archetype - series creator Setsu Shigematsu says they're also written to align with Common Core, the educational standards adopted by 45 states.

SHIGEMATSU: This shift that's happening across public education, with the Common Core standards is to go beyond rote memory. So, we're designing our books to be fun and visually appealing, but beyond that we want our books to teach important moral and ethical principles. There are the Common Core language standard, but the environmental theme will also help connect our books with the sciences.

GUILHEM: How important is that Common Core designation? Gay Kolodzik, owner of the Frugal Frigate Children's Bookstore in Redlands, California, says for those in the children's lit world, it's a pretty big deal.

GAY KOLODZIK: When I read all the publisher's magazines that I read every day, if they say meets Common Core instantly I go right to it and look through it and see if it's something that suits the store and suits the people that shop here. But it gets my attention quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: (Reading) Gula, Gula, Gula, fly beyond the trees.

SHIGEMATSU: (Reading) Princess Vinnea said, no, these fruits and vegetables are not natural. They contain a dangerous chemical, admit it.

GUILHEM: The life of a princess, once fraught with evil stepmothers and dangerous spinning wheels, is suddenly one of social activism against genetically modified food.

SHIGEMATSU: (Reading) Dolo, you've ruined our garden in order to feed the people this unhealthy food. Dolo walked over to her and said, I have nothing to admit, Princess.

GUILHEM: Glass slippers might be a little impractical for getting the job done, but just because she's working hard doesn't mean Princess Vinnea can't wear a pair of sensible and pretty shoes. For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.