By a show of hands, who is tired of reading books where everything is pink and sparkly and lacy and fairy-y and princess-y and magic-y but have absolutely no real substance of any kind in them? (This is where I imagine all of your hands being raised). Here is a list of books that talk about those things, but have plots and subplots and heroes and heroines and flip those stories right on their heads:
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, illustrated by Ana Juan (fairies)
Is this a dream? Is this an allegory? Does it really matter when it’s an exciting adventure that a little girl takes to a new place called Fairyland that only she can save? Somewhat reminiscent of Peter Pan.
Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno (princess)
This might be my favorite book on this list, with a princess who believes she’s completely unlike what a princess is supposed to be, and manages to save the day (and the dragon?) anyway.
Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (princess + magic)
In a mountain town, a group of girls is rounded up and told they are to attend a princess academy. For the first time ever, the prince will choose a bridge from among the commoners. But not everyone is happy with this plan, and the girls will need to rely on their inner strength and some mountain magic to avoid flunking out of the academy (and to avoid the kidnappers, of course).
Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis (magic)
Ah, magic. If you know you’re supposed to hide it, if you were never taught to use it, is it any wonder that a little girl might accidentally abuse it? With the best of intentions, of course.
The Castle Corona, Sharon Creech, illustrated by David Diaz (royalty)
Not about the beer, I promise. Instead, this is a book about a kingdom and a castle and a family, told as only a Newbery Award-winning author could.
The Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Jules Feiffer (princess)
The princess is supposed to choose a suitor and get married at the end of the birthday ball. But this princess has other plans. The first chapter book Jules Feiffer (of Phantom Tollbooth fame) has illustrated in ages, written by the beloved Lois Lowry; this combo is not to be missed!
The Magic Half by Annie Barrows (magic)
In a family with two sets of twins, Miri, the middle child, often feels left out, like she’s missing that other half of herself she sees satisfied by her two sets of twin siblings. This problem is solved with a little time travel, a whole lot of luck, and a new addition to the family.
For a similar type of feeling that the above-mentioned books give you, with a little less princess and magic, but lots of adventure, gumption, and girls with grit.
Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress
Who wouldn’t want to read a story about a girl who runs away on a rescue mission and ends up becoming a pirate?!?
I’ve been enamored of this book ever since its publication 10 years ago, and as it won the National Book Award, I think the experts are backing me up. I like to call this a modern day classic, as it has all the charm of a children’s classic with just a bit of updating to make it relevant today. An adventurous romp the whole family can enjoy.
Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters by Lesley M.M. Blume
Cornelia is not the most adventurous of girls. Her famous parents leave her alone a lot, she doesn’t have many friends, and it isn’t until a new neighbor moves in across the hall and begins to tell her the most fantastic stories about her lifelong adventures with her sisters that Cornelia begins to learn how to come out of her shell. Absolutely charming.
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood, illustrated by John Klassen
What’s a young governess to do when her first job out of school is taking care of three wild children who were raised by wolves in the woods? Roll up her sleeves and jump right in, of course! Even if the children haven’t quite learned how to not chase squirrels or howl at the moon yet.
Now, though I have not read these myself, they seem to be along the same lines as the books mentioned above, so if you’re looking for a new read that’s a little off the beaten path, try picking up one of these (and then let me know if it was any good!):
The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls by Elise Primavera
Publisher description: For seven years, bad luck has followed Ivy around like a dog on a leash. Her father disappeared, her mother is a washed-up beauty-pageant winner, and now Viola and her mother have moved into a raqmshackle house on Gumm Street. Ivy’s new neighbors-bookish Pru, stuck-up Cat, and wannabe adventurer Franny-are worse than unfriendly. But then a mysterious pair of ruby red slippers turn up, and the four girls are swept away…not to OZ, but to the jaw-droppingly strange lands of SPOZ, and SPUDZ, and OOZE, pursued by the fashionably mad Cha-Cha Staccato, who bears a frightening resemblance to a certain wicked witch….
The Ugly Princess and the Wise Fool by Margaret Gray, illustrated by Randy Cecil
Publisher description: Can a seafaring fairy godmother, a wise fool, and an enchanted hairstyle keep Princess Rose out of trouble? Princess Rose doesn’t get any prettier as she grows up, but the kingdom does get over its shock. Everyone adores the skinny, buck-toothed princess, and she doesn’t mind her appearance—until the handsomest prince in the world comes looking for a bride. Despite warnings from her seafaring fairy godmother and a wise fool named Jasper, reckless Rose wishes for beauty. She gets her wish, and the prince, but finds neither is as nice as she had expected.
Diary of a Fairy Godmother by Esme Raji Codell, illustrated by Drazen Kozjan
Publisher description: Hunky Dory is at the top of her class in charm school. She can make flowers wilt like wet spaghetti. She can make thunder rumble like a whale’s bellyache. And she can turn any prince into a frog-but she always changes them back. That’s when she knows there’ll be a problem
The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs
Publisher description: “A dragon darkens our dells. A witch haunts our woods. Bandits roam our moors” . . . King Stromgard swept on. “In the tradition of so many monarchs, I offer my daughter’s hand in marriage and half my kingdom to the prince who can rid us of these evils, restoring peace and prosperity to our realm.”
And so the contest in the Kingdom of Greeve begins. But Princess Margaret is not your traditional princess. Meg firmly objects to her parents’ giving her away, and she certainly has no intention of remaining in the tower where she is sequestered. Instead, she sets out to win the contest herself by enlisting the help of her good friend, her loyal maid, an eager guardsman, a young wizard, and a tenacious witch. Does Meg find her distinct place in the kingdom, or is she doomed to fulfill her royal duties?
Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke
Publisher description: Igraine dreams of becoming a famous knight just like her great grandfather, but the truth is, life at the family castle is rather boring. Until the nephew of the baroness-next-door shows up. He’s got a dastardly plan to capture the castle and claim as his own the wonderful singing spell books that belong to Igraine’s magician parents. To make matters worse, at the very moment of the siege, her mom and dad botch a spell, turning themselves into pigs! Aided by a Gentle Giant and a Sorrowful Knight, it’s up to Igraine to be brave and save the day–and the books!