Monday, July 30, 2007


I finally read Specials, pretty much started the second I closed Harry, but didn't get a chance to finish until today. Of the trilogy Uglies is definitely my favourite. Having said that, I love that it's a trilogy. Structurally I also love that there's (hope this isn't spoilery, but feel free to stop reading) a kind of motif of repetition throughout the series, very loopy (and not in the crazyla-la sense but in the circular narrative sense) and satisfying.

Can't wait to read Extras. hereandnow mentioned it in the comments the other day (I heart delurkers), but I had to finish Specials before I could read the extremely spoilerific synopsis on Scott's website. It sounds totally awesome, and like it touches on some new themes. And Scott gets extra points for having excellent titles. I love a one-worder myself, as you all might know.

In other news, my advance copies of the Aussie Chomp I wrote for Penguin, Josie and the Michael Street Kids (my first foray into a multiword title), arrived and it's gorgeous, the colours are bright and vivid, very cheery.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Una is walking!

Hooray! She spent most of her day on her feet today, so I think we can officially say once and for all, Una is walking. And she's "only" 22 months young (she'll be two in September).

In other news, I read Harry Potter, pretty much in one sitting yesterday while I was sick in bed. Ate it for breakfast, lunch and tea and double helpings of dessert. Delicious. Have all sorts of spoilery criticisms but feel like it's just too bad fairy who wasn't invited to the christening to write them here, when I actually had so much fun reading it. So I am happy to just say it was great and leave it at that. If anyone really wants to know my grumbles, they are welcome to email me at penni[dot]russon[at]gmail[dot]com

And finally put photos on flickr today of the holiday. Go and soak up the warm. Fred asked if we could go back today. Sounds nice.

More here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

This is brilliant

You must read Amy's Diary. She wants you to.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The future of YA

Sophie Masson - who is an astonishingly prolific and talented writer, I was admiring a long line of her books in the Uni Melb library today, and all her books have such great concepts, I think she must have a direct line to some kind of exotic god - sent me a bunch of questions about YA, for an article she's writing for The Australian Author. I thought the questions were so interesting I've posted them here, with my answers. Blog post ready made - contintental cup o' blog.

*Do you think YA as a category is dead? has Older Readers taken that over? Is the field more genre-driven these days?
No way, YA will never die!
I think the beauty of YA is that it encompasses every genre, allows for genre crossing within books and for authors to experiment with genres they might not feel free to write in if they were constrained by marketing issues. I do think YA as a marketing term has become blurred, there is a broader range of ages being lumped together as YA. But I also think there are more books being published for older, literate teenagers (say 16+, who were once perceived as simply graduated to adult books, but who want to read books that reflect their own interior and exterior experience). I still think of YA as relatively new (though there have been YA books around for ages) because it's only in the last 10-15 years that they've had their own section in the bookshop and library. I guess when I was a teenager there was a 'teen' section, but this was dominated by series fiction like Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams and those terribly compulsive Caitlin books. I think Virginia Andrews (who was into incest and mutant babies) was put in the adult section though we all read them in about grade seven.

*How do you think the field has changed over the last 20 years, according to your own experience/observation?
I think more adults read YA now (or openly acknowledge it). I think it's a more distinct marketing category than it was when I was a teenager (not quite 20 years ago). I think there is a lot more quality literature marketed as YA. When I was a teenager YA usually meant books about relationships. The main publisher I recall marketing their books specifically for young adults (apart from series romance books like Sweet Valley High) was Pan Horizons - Forever by Judy Blume was published in this series. I almost got suspended in high school for reading another Horizons book Beginner's Love by Norma Klein, which explored the move of a relationship into sex and the consequences. My mum and dad 100% supported me, and eventually the school let the issue go. Now I think schools and librarians are more supportive of and open to the complexity of themes and issues YA deals with. Puffin Plus was another teen label - they published Robert Westall, John Wyndham, Anne Fine, K.M. Peyton...but that was a real blend of YA and Older Readers. (I read Chocky in grade 2).

*Do you think readers' tastes have changed?
Hmm. Possibly. I certainly think that there are less taboo topics in YA and there is a perception that YA tends to be very dreary and dark - dealing with the gritty side of life. Catharsis is a huge function of YA, but it always has been. I think maybe adult readers and moderators of YA have become more accepting of depicting a real world for adolescents - sex, drugs, homosexuality. Though we obviously still have a long way to go, as David Levithan recently pointed out at Reading Matters (in direct reference to gay and lesbian teenagers not getting the books they need, books reflecting their experience.)

*what about the industry? Are certain kinds of books not being published? If so, what?
I do think there are conventions and issues with the notion of 'crossover' books (books that deal with difficult or complex issues or feature older teens, young twentysomethings) that mean books get edited or marketed in a certain way and often lost in the gap between adult and YA (apparently it is hard to sell adults books with child/teen protagonists). I believe any good book in Australia will be published, but it might not get the support it needs from marketing or booksellers or teachers or librarians. Being published is only the first step on a long, hard road between writing a book and getting it into a reader's hands!

*what do you think is the future for the field? can you identify any trends within it?
I don't think it's very easy for the current generation of writers or publishers to imagine the future. I think delivery of content will be different, I think the paper book will become an artefact of the past. But I find it difficult to imagine what the aesthetics of the 'new literature' will be. I think blogs gives us a clue to what ebooks might end up looking like - I think graphic novels do too. I think imagery and design will become more important. I sometimes wonder if serial fiction might enjoy a resurgence. Verse novels are becoming more popular and they lend themselves well to a different kind of presentation. I think we've stopped saying 'boys aren't reading' and started saying, 'boys are reading, but what are they reading?' They're reading game narratives, they're reading television. I think new literacies won't necessarily look like a computerised version of old literacies, at least for young people.
I think a more immediate future is that a broader range of adults will be drawn to youth lit (thanks in part to Harry Potter). I think adults who have discovered the compulsive storytelling aspect of Harry Potter will find more books in YA to satisfy this new appetite than they will in adult fiction. I think TV shows like Buffy showed that teenagers can be complex characters, dealing in an intense way with issues that never go away in adulthood, rather than a whole other (objectionable) species or a reminder of a past that we don't want to revisit. They say 30 is the new 20, and I think in a lot of ways that's true. This protracted adolescence allows for a different kind of mature YA reader - probably less interested in 'issues' and more interested in action, psychology and complex plots. Looking for the same things though: catharsis, a safe rehearsal of emotions or experiences (grief, love, desire, violence, survival), and entertainment.

*do you think the quality of books has gone up/down/stayed pretty much the same, over the last 20 years?
I think the quality remains high. I couldn't say better without a written apology to writers like Robert Westall, who wrote amazing books for teenagers. And of course, there's a lot of crap out there.

*do you think young readers can handle challenging books(complex structure, vocab or ideas) in the same way as they used to? if not, why not?
Absolutely. I would never 'write down' because I was writing for teenagers. In fact I think their more open to experiments than a lot of adult readers, or to wrestling with tough concepts.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


The blogiverse is a minefield. I can no longer go anywhere, I have to shelter in the relative quiet of eglantine's cake. Why? Because everyone's blogging about HP7 and I still haven't read it. Boohoo. I am suddenly remembering what it was like when everyone else had tube skirts and bubblegum jeans.

Come on Kate. Read faster.

If anyone tells me what happens before I get to read it I will gut them with a toothbrush.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

We came back

So yeah, that whole lying around in the sunshine reading business, hard to take. So not. But over now. Boo hoo. Once I would never have bothered with a holiday in a resorty type place with nothing to do but eat sleep read and go to the beach. Now it is heaven on a stick, but without the stick, which would only get in the way of the heaven part anyway. Who needs a big stick on your holiday? Not I. And that is all I am saying on the stick front. Used to be that ten days felt like plenty enough holiday. Not anymore. I need another month. At least.

So was it relaxing? Surprisingly yes. Even with an almost 2 year old who knee-walks like a demon (a weird knee-walking demon) and a 4 year old who has newly discovered her inner robber princess who is (deliciously ambiguously) a goodie and a baddie, called Chow-Chow. Chow-Chow fights her enemies by jumping into a star like position with one hand one out (You can't stop the music, Village People style) and shouting 'Light to the world'. And who on two mornings breakfasted on cocopops out of the mini pack cereal selection and was ropeable until we could get real food into her. That's why your mum would never let you eat them. Who knew?

We went swimming in the sea. It was lovely. Melbourne is fah-reaking CO-O-O-OLD.

In the last week I read:
*UGLIES By Scott Westerfeld. Bought when I had books and books, so didn't see the point in getting all three. Consumed rapidly. Went back to Cairns specifically to buy Pretties and Specials but Specials had SOLD OUT! Nooo. But managed to buy and read PRETTIES. Think I'm a bit of a fan actually. I read So Yesterday ages ago after seeing Scott talking at a CYL thing and really really liked it but was about to have a baby so was somewhat preoccupied. Somehow I was unprepared for how fannishly I would consume Uglies and Pretties. Bought Specials at Cairns airport but then Martin STOLE it and read it and meanwhile I started reading a Ben Elton book which has been sitting on my shelf for months and months (bought for 50c at the library book sale) and now feel oddly compelled to finish it. Might be subconsciously putting off finishing Specials because a) I don't want it to ever ever ever end and b) I couldn't buy Harry Potter because Martin wouldn't let me spend $45 at the airport and our local K-Mart has sold out. But yes. So far this trilogy is definitely recommended. And very reasonably priced too. And great covers, better than silly old those grapes were sour anyway Harry Potter's (must buy Harry must buy Harry).

*LITTLE CHILDREN by Tom Perotta. Good. Oddly tense. I thought the structure was quite unusual, particularly in terms of the unexpected climax and the way the story threads joined together. Won't say anymore for fear of spoilage, but recommended with reservations (like don't sell your children in order to buy a copy of this book, but it was well worth the 50c at the - you guessed it - library book sale). And the good thing about 50c books is you can leave them behind so you can bring new books home with you.

*AMATEUR MARRIAGE by Anne Tyler. Good, but not her best. In fact I could almost say I was marginally disappointed. But only marginally, it was still Anne Tyler after all, and I love being taken into her world and living with her people. She writes the most psychologically vivid characters, sometimes they feel more real than me. Clever structure again, similar in some ways to Little Children (in the way that the story builds through shifting points of view), but a much more elegant climax in some ways, though in other senses I thought it was a little muted. But always so much going on beneath the surface. Recommended, because I think everyone in the world should read every word she wrote. I think if there is a God then she's a little like Anne Tyler, she likes the details.

*CAT'S EYE by Margaret Atwood. I find something quite hypnotic about Margaret Atwood's prose, I start to think in it after a while. I love her poetry and short stories but it takes me a while to settle into the rhythms of her novels and I actually gave up on Alias Grace last year, though I do mean to try again. I had a few false starts with Blind Assassin too, and ended up adoring it, took me a month to read the first few chapters (my appendix burst soon after I began it) and then I read the rest of it in a day (this was before I had children - little reading saboteurs). Cat's Eye has a very similar feel to her short stories and seems perhaps a bit more autobiographical than some of her novels. Again the climax is a little unexpected, the novel builds a great deal of tension, which never really eases and hints at something quite dark at its climax but doesn't have a big satisfying plot-point finish. Which is part of its success. Recommended.

*And finally, aloud to Frederique, THE BIG BOOK OF TASHI. We broke with convention (Martin and I usually take it in turns to read the night time story) and I read nearly every night. More by luck than good management we read the very last story on the very last night. They are great stories with a strong fable flavour, actually many of them borrow strongly from traditional stories (like The Pied Piper). But the nuance and texture of the language is beautiful and these are great stories to read aloud. They did get a bit more complex as the book progressed and sometimes Fred's attention (which is about the size of a medium gnat and twice as buzzy) flitted off. But it's a brilliant book for introducing the concept of chapters because there's pictures on every page and each chapter is self-contained though there is often a link between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. Loved by all.

More on the holiday to come - photos (yep, you gotta sit through the Blue Sky, Short Sleeved holiday pics) and some vaguely hysterical gabble about the recently purchased house, which is the new next big thing. Actually, I'm in denial about that.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Thanks everyone for your well-wishes.
I am currently wearing new boardies, using the tail end of Martin's cybersession (bank stuff) to sign in and say


Weather's great, wish you were here. Lots of beachy bliss out moments already had and another 9 days to go - Hurrah!!

Back on the 21st. Love yas all.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Things I did today

1. Dropped Una off at creche. Fred opted not to go.
2. Martin, Fred and I had coffee/hot chocolate and raisin toast. Walking down the street with just Fred was really nice. She has been a Delight the last two days - must be feeling better. But it was probably good she stayed home from 'the kids'.
3. Said goodbye to Martin who went off to do some business. Went to Melbourne Uni to pick up the reader for the subject I'm tutoring.
4. Walked back, up Lygon Street then Brunswick Street looking for toys for Fred and Una for the trip. Was deeply inefficient. Got a couple of bits and pieces, can't for the life of me recall what. Nice groovy chick in shop gift-wrapped many small inexpensive items.
5. Went shopping for bathers. Soul shattering experience. Bought boardies, when draw string is loosened have a lot of grow room. Therefore can gain several kilos without having to ever shop for more bathers. Hooray.
6. Came home.
7. Packed my clothes, girls' clothes, several other miscellaneous items for holiday. Leaving tomorrow.
8. Finished draft 2 of Indigo Girls, including writing a new ending, which is a perfect way to include best bits of old ending but strengthen themes of novel. Very gratifying.
9. Bought a house.
10. What's that?
11. Bought a house.
12. Yes.
13. A house.
14. Oops.
15. So I can't buy a FREAKING toy, but man can I shop for a house.
16. We spent less time in the house we bought than I did in the toyshop today.
17. Here's a picture.

18. And another, and another:

Note the many trees. Toto, I don't think we're in Northcote anymore.
19. Toasted house with half a lindt chocolate and a hot cup of peppermint tea. We own a future mortgage on half a mudbrick house far far away. Wheee.

Um. Better learn to drive then.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

five six seven eight

I've been tagged by Janet. Yay, I'm special. Eight things about ME ME ME. Because you're all desperate to know. I can see it in your eyes.

Here are the rules:

A. Each player lists 8 facts/habits about themselves.

B. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed.

C. At the end of the post, the player then tags 8 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged and asking them to read your blog.

I have never been on a rollercoaster, or anything scarier than the Ferris Wheel. I did however go on the London Eye when I was in (um) London, which seemed brave. Only it wasn't actually scary, I think cause you're all sealed in, so it's like being in a plane - kind of disconnected. And I have been in a hot air balloon, which is not at all like being in a plane. So I am not a complete ninny. Oh hang on, this is a LIE. I went on the 'scenic railway' at Luna Park (the tamest rollercoaster ever, they let four year olds go on it. But genuinely alarming, since it's quite rickety and I think it once caught on fire...actually that might also be a lie).

I hate shopping for anything specific or for an occasion, even for fun things like presents for the kids. I am indecisive, I always want to buy the perfect thing. I carry things around the shop and then put them back. Often I leave without buying anything, usually with a headache. I much prefer making presents when I have time, even though I'm not a star at it - I do think it conveys love and care though. And I love buying things on a whim for myself and other people. I feel embarrassed giving people presents and don't like to watch them open them.

Sometimes I wish we'd called Frederique 'Frederica' (which is what we occasionally call her anyway, affectionately) since a surprising number of people think Frederique is a boy's name. Plus I have to explain that no, we're not French, we're just slightly pretentious. But Frederica doesn't look as elegant written down. We never considered it really. Once we found the name Frederique that was The One.

I want to have another baby.

I believe in souls, but not in a religious sense - and I don't believe in heaven and hell. But I believe there is something about us, some essence or spirit or consciousness, that exists before and after our bodies, that is not chemical or biological. But I don't think we remember our life when we die. I think memories are a chemical process, part of our corporeal existence.

When I was about 9 or 10 I saw a horse die on the road - it had been hit by a car (a station wagon, I think, maybe a volvo - there were a lot around back then). The horse's name was Midnight and the girl who owned him was Lydia - she was my age but went to a private school. Everybody knew who they were - or so it seemed to me, they were certainly prominent features of my childhood landscape though I never played with Lydia, sometimes I talked to her on the school bus or when she was out riding Midnight - I have a distinct memory of her looking down at me from the horse. I was scared of him, but I loved him. I wished he was mine. Lydia lay across him sobbing as he died, pleading with him to get up. Zoe was there with me, we both knew that if a horse lay down it was done for - we'd seen enough midday movies to learn this irrefutable fact of horse biology (I remember us discussing it years later as we did a wine tour of the Barossa, looking out the window at paddocks of lying down horses). The driver of the car, a middle aged woman, was telling the small crowd that she hadn't seen them, that they'd come onto the road out of nowhere and there had been nothing she could do, she was very overwrought. It seemed so unlikely, I don't know if anyone believed her and i think I probably felt quite cross at her distress - it seemed unfair to Lydia really that the driver should be so upset. I remember being intensely sad for Lydia but kind of jealous too, jealous of both her horse and her grief. There was something about her devastation that indicated their symbiosis, this sense of their bodies, their identities being enmeshed. I didn't want to be a bystander. I wanted to be a part of it. But I was glad I wasn't too, that these strong, alarming emotions weren't mine. I wasn't sure I was even capable of such feelings. I was - just at that age I had nothing like Midnight to lose.

I've been asked to teach a class next semester at Melbourne Uni. It's an undergraduate creative writing subject. I've never taught before, but I secretly think I might be quite good at it.

My Great Grandmother was a Welsh gypsy. I sometimes think I've inherited a restlessness of the spirit from her (I am sure that's a shocking over-romanticism of the difficult conditions she would have lived in). It's not that I've travelled that much, not great distances, but I can never settle anywhere. I love moving house (I hate packing though). I don't mind living out of boxes. I like being somewhere new, with different scenery around me. I really hope I can overcome my wandersome ways and find somewhere to live and stay while the kids grow up a bit, let them put down some roots (and let myself put down roots too, let myself belong somewhere, feel permanent). Fred has lived in four suburbs in four very different parts of Melbourne since she was born. We're actually in the process of putting an offer on a house...maybe this will be The One. It represents a fairly big lifestyle change, but something I've always known I wanted for my kids. I'll let you know.

Okay, I'm tagging: Nadia, Jo, Ben, Kath, Lili, Meli, Fi, and Tracey. Tomorrow's mission will be to comment on all your blogs.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sick kids

It's been a while since I posted photos of my lovely children. We had a quiet day, but we did manage to go and look at a house in our househunting endeavors. We might even attempt to buy it. We also read books, watched Boobah (Una has just discovered tv and it must be Boobah, which is the weirdest show on earth, and only translatable if you are under five years old), ate chorzio sausage stew and rocky road ice cream and pep-o-mint lifessavers, and listened to Fred who hasn't vomited for many hours loudly planning her birthday from her bedroom where she is not asleep. Her birthday involves quite a lot of chocolate cake and jelly, so I'm thinking she must be feeling better. Except for the occasional visit from Pretend Elmo who is NOT a good monster, he is a BAD monster (and look, to be honest, the idea of an Elmo impostor frightens the hell out of me).
Anyway, children to follow, interestingly pale and rosecheeked with their respective lergies. Everyone wants to wear my hat. Una is the latest to steal it. Martin, briefly, was under the misapprehension that the hat was his. Our camera is, alas, on its way out. It has to be banged about rather a lot before it takes a photo rather than pink and black squiggly lines and all our photos look just a little bit fuzzy. Must buy new camera. Better buy house first.

Friday, July 06, 2007

All About Me

1. Children are sick. Una has almost lost her voice and now speaks with a semi-delightful squeak. Fred vomits intermittently. As they seem to have different sicks we are waiting to see if the sicks will swap. Sigh.
2. Went to Tassie with Frederique. It was cold. Saw Grandma and Grandad (well, Mum and Dad to me), ate well, read in comfortably furnished well-lit house and coveted their new camera. Mum...use it. Do not be afraid. You own the camera, it does not own you.
3. Am refining my reading list for holidaying (as of Wednesday 11th). So far on the list is:
Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, because I'm a good speller. Funny nonstory. I almost bought the movie of this on DVD (but was slightly turned off by Richard Gere. I love Juliet Binoche though), then came home and discovered to my astonishment that I own the book. Don't you love that?
Pretties, Uglies, Specials by Scott Westerfeld because I love smart writers and Scott is way fully smart. Martin is going to buy it, so he gets first dibs.
Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, because somehow I have never read a single book by her. How does such a thing happen?
I also have Little Children by Tom Perotta, scored for 50c at the library book sale.
4. Househunting, to buy. Unlikely will result in actual buying. Is soul destroying experience. Went to house yesterday that said 'please leave your shoes at the front door'. Someone should put up a sign saying 'please leave your hearts at the front door.'
5. Found some blogs where knitters were being mean to each other. Knitters. What hope is there? I despair. But then I spose knitters were always inclined to explore the darker quarter of the human heart. Look at Madame Defarge.
Dickens’s knitting imagery also emphasizes an association between vengefulness and fate, which, in Greek mythology, is traditionally linked to knitting or weaving. The Fates, three sisters who control human life, busy themselves with the tasks of weavers or seamstresses: one sister spins the web of life, another measures it, and the last cuts it. Madame Defarge’s knitting thus becomes a symbol of her victims’ fate—death at the hands of a wrathful peasantry. From Spark Notes

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Princess Problem

The princess paradigm, as I pointed out the other day, can be empowering. But sometimes it can be hard to see how. One thing's for sure, there's no steering the kids away from them. Princesses saturate pop-culture, and there is only so long a lone parent can hold back a tidal wave. Besides, as a parent I can't help feeling a bit stingy and humourless if I attempt to ban all things girly. This morning Una came into my bedroom wearing a tulle dress. I asked her if she was a fairy, and she patted her dress and said that she was a 'pin-cess' (she is 21 months old).
I remember as a child being enchanted by princesses, romanced by these fairy-tale figures. My memory for the most part is a vague sense of resourceful and fairly independent girls, alone in the world with their problems and generally with some hand in their own deliverance. I can't remember actually playing at being a princess though, I don't think it weighed as heavily on my consciousness as it does on today's generation. I think Brides were the ultimate form of femininity when I was a kid (even Diana was a Bride before she was a princess), but personally I didn't ever play that either (and I'd rather my daughers were aspiring princesses than aspiring brides).
There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception.
Peggy Orenstein What's Wrong With Cinderella?
When thinking about princess power, it's much easier to see how princesses are disempowering. And actually the presence and absence of the power of the princess often comes from the same place. Princess tales are generally transformational tales. Cinderella (or, as I like to call her, Ashputtel) is the prime example, from ashes to princess. Actually to me Ashputtel is a slightly more empowered version of the story, as Ashputtel is more of an agent in her own transformation - instead of being 'saved' by a fairy godmother, her transformation originates in her relationship with her environment, where the earth seems to stand in for the body of the mother and the spirit of the mother is revitalised in the spirit of the bird. A tree grows from the mother's grave (a tree that grows from a twig Ashputtel requests as a gift from her father when her stepsisters ask for diamonds and pearls - a twig that represents Ashputtel's loyalty and modesty) and Ashputtel's divine assistance comes from a bird who makes a nest in the tree.

Subverting the myth
Many modern princess myths subvert the transformational tale. But sometimes what masquerades as a subversion, can be another way of telling the same story. Take Princess Fiona in Shrek for example, instead of monster to princess, ugly to beautiful, the transformation moves in the other direction. Gasp. This is the twist, the plot turn that makes the whole movie special: Princess Fiona chooses to be an ogre too, even though she's a really beautiful girl who could marry a really handsome prince (it's such a big whoop they made a second movie pretty much based around the same twist). Of course it's not really a subversion - it's all relative. The choice she makes is to remain beautiful, just by someone else's standard.
According to canon, she was sent away to the castle because her parents couldn’t handle the fact that their daughter was born an ogress. It’s like a fairy tale version of fat camp.
from curvature
At no point does she really choose who she wants to be just for herself, to suit her own goals or desires (does she even have any? According to Shrek 2, it's to become Mrs Fiona Charming). It also promotes the idea that there is one perfect person out there for everyone, the soul mate myth. A bigger stereotype buster would have been if Princess Fiona had chosen to be a girl and married Shrek anyway. If they had remained mismatched, but had been determined to make it work anyway. No happy ever after, just good honest (relationship) work. Is that a boring outcome? I don't see why it has to be. In some ways it would heighten the romance, the love arc would have to be more convincing than 'you rescued me and then we hung out for a few days, and hey we look alike, I love you, let's get married in a hurry.' And the sequel could have had, you know, a different plot. Don't get me wrong, I loved Shrek (the first thirty or so times I saw it), the music's great, the story's engaging and original, the dialogue's funny and fresh, the acting first rate, and it is refreshing to see the happy ever after couple have a different body type from all those other Disney princesses and princes. It just doesn't add anything new to the princess myth.

On face value, Anastasia (1997) seems like a more straightforward and fairly typical transformation 'rags to riches' princess plot. The movie take it's premise from the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Anastasia Romanov (actually a Grand Duchess rather than a princess), the youngest daughter of the Russian czar, who was rumoured to have survived the capture and execution of her family. The story is of Anya, a young woman of uncertain origin who is convinced by con-artist Dmitri to travel to Paris to discover whether or not she is really Princess Anastasia (the audience knows she is from the outset, it's never a surprise). Although the movie seems to be about Anastasia's quest for her identity, in actual fact she is who she is from the beginning, we know she's the princess, she just doesn't know it yet. We also know that she's going to be the same gutsy, individualistic girl whether she's a princess or not. The real shift, the real transformation, is Dmitri's. He goes from being opportunistic, self-serving and materialistic, to discovering inner meaning and a stronger, truer set of values. This movie, a favourite of Fred's, is actually a much better example of a subverted princess tale, where the princess gets to be true to herself in the end, but still get the rewards of true love, identity and family.

The Little (Rough and Tumble) Princess?
Sometimes we use the word Princess to mean spoilt. Sometimes it means a sort of preciousness, a princess can be a girl who likes accessories and glitz, who doesn't like getting dirty or breaking a nail. Sometimes (worryingly) princess and girl can seem to be used interchangeably - thrown in with a bunch of other coded girl words, like fairy, ballerina, bride, mother and even baby. I've heard mums use it affectionately. She's 'such a princess' can be a way of saying she likes pink and sparkles and tiaras. Nearly always it's accompanied with an astonished 'I don't know where she gets it from, I'm not like that.' (But I wonder if that is where they get it from, encouraged to continue exploring this side of themselves by our kinda sorta feminist delight in our daughters showing an interest in being a type of girl that isn't like me).
Often princess just seems to be just another affectionate way of saying 'favoured daughter' or 'special girl'. In Tony Ross's Little Princess books for example, and in Liz Honey's Princess Beatrice and the Rotten Robber, there's nothing in particular about the story-lines that absolutely necessitates that these girls are princesses. In fact these girls are both wild and woolly, with their maniacally wayward hair, stubborn resourcefulness and messy ways. What they also have in common is that they are firmly situated at the centre of a large, loving family. They do wear crowns and jewels, live in castles and eat fancy food, attended to by servants (who really represent the whole adult world, at once attending to their every need, but also curiously indifferent to them and busy with their own lives). But they also muck about, there's nothing precious about them. In a way princess is a perfect way of describing the state of childhood. On the one hand these girls are the centre of their universe, with power over everyone, embodied in the image of the crown. But on the other hand they are entirely disempowered, they're children; carted about by adults and told what to do. Besting the adult world requires drawing on inner resources rather than simply relying on their status as princess. These books don't give a partial idea about what girls are - in this case princess doesn't mean limited. You can't imagine either of them getting cursed then lying around perfectly preserved in a glass casket waiting to be rescued. These girls are everything I want my kids to be.
Speaking for Fred, I think it's in this apparent contradiction that the princess myth shows promise (though Fred told me today that she'd rather be a fairy - she's worried about a princess's crown being too tight). But this model of princess definitely offers girls scope to interpret and reinterpret femininity, using both imposed social codes and their own desires. A girl can embrace all sorts of conflicting aspects of herself and tie it together with the word princess. She can live out all sorts of desires, such as the desire to swish around in a long dress coupled with the desire to wallow about in the dirt. It doesn't have to be commodified, corporate or commercial, Fred's princess isn't trademarked by Disney. Maybe one day she'll replace the word princess with girl or woman, embracing the multiplicity of her feminine identity. What more could any proud mum ask for?

I've actually remembered to tag this one. More on princesses, fairies and brides coming up later, this is an endlessly fascinating topic.