Review: Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke & Illustrated by Kerstin Meyer

Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke. Illustrated by Kerstin Meyer. Translated by Chantal Wright. Scholastic, 2007. Currently available.

Genre: Picture book

Face Value: Very appealing. I love Kerstin Meyer’s charming illustrations, and the image on the cover is captivating – a little girl looking totally content in the filth of the pigpen. I especially love the dazed and confused look on the pig’s face as he stares at Isabella. The humor in the cover image drew me in. You can tell from the cover that this is going to be an unconventional, Slatebreaking book!

Does it break the slate?  Yes! Cornelia Funke has written several pictures books that subvert the patriarchal paradigm, and Princess Pigsty is no different. The princess of the title is Isabella, a girl who is growing increasingly tired with the formality and rigidity of her royal lifestyle. Her decision to challenge her family’s expectations is initially not well met, but Isabella insists on doing “princess” her own way.

Who would we give it to? I think all little girls would enjoy this book, but it might be an especially great choice for girls who are hardcore into princess stuff. It could be nice to include an alternative telling of the princess role into their pop culture diet. 

Review: Before reading Princess Pigsty, I assumed this would be a book about defying culturally embedded gender expectations. I thought that the princess on the cover would be a “tomboy” character more interested in outdoorsy things than the domestic pursuits of castle life. Interesting, but predictable.

Princess Pigsty is not the book that I thought it was. And I’m happy about that. Yes, the princess Isabella does defy some gender expectations, but the real reason that her non-traditional behavior has everyone riled up is because she is breaking class boundaries. Isabella recognizes her privilege as a member of the royal family and chooses to reject aspects of that privilege. She dabbles in tasks that are more typically of the working class, and even more shockingly, she enjoys doing it! Her father forbids her from continuing with her new interest in menial labor, but Isabella decides she would rather sleep in the pigsty than share a castle with a family that doesn’t understand her. There’s also a lovely moment when she pitches her crown out the window.

Of course, the king is so forlorn over Isabella’s absence that he goes to the pigsty and welcomes her back into the castle. They reach a compromise: if Isabella can occasionally fulfill her formal princess duties, she can continue to explore the different jobs and tasks around the castle. It’s a nice compromise. Perhaps too easily reached, but nice all the same. There’s only so much a girl can do in 32 pages, I guess.

I found it really interesting that Isabella was so curious about the sources of her food. She didn’t know how bread was made or where her meat came from or that you could make jam from berries, but she found joy in discovering these things as she worked around the castle. I am a big fan of growing one’s understanding of where one’s food comes from (I have a “No Farms No Food” bumper sticker on my car), so this part of the story really worked for me. Even those of us who aren’t royalty can appreciate Isabella’s journey uncovering the real story behind her meals.

Princess Pigsty has a unique cultural relevance right now because it parallels many of the themes in Brave, the new Disney/Pixar film about another princess who feels confined by her royal role. Both stories feature a young woman who challenges notions of “class-appropriate” behavior. Both feature a parent-daughter relationship that is strained by the princess’s choices. If you are have seen Brave or plan to see Brave, Princess Pigsty is a great picture book that can continue to conversation stimulated by the movie. I would love to see a break from princess-based stories, but we seem to be stuck on the princess theme. While we’re there, Princess Pigsty can bring a different perspective and broaden a young reader’s idea of what it means to be a princess.

Reviewed from copy purchased at Changing Hands Bookstore.

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