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I first heard about this little book in passing on YouTuber Lilly Singh's (AKA iiSuperwomanii's) Instagram back in August, and though I had been since genuinely interested in checking it out, I had since that time been too preoccupied with work, my other projects, and reading other books to properly sit down and give it the attention it deserves.
That is, until tonight. I had some free time to spare and felt the urge to write about something more recent, so I thought, "I've always said I'd like to focus more on children's literature and media, so what better time than now?" Needless to say, I'm glad I finally read it; aside from my lifelong love of all consumables tailored to children, I do feel this is an important part of the modern literary lexicon to discuss on a wider platform.
Written by Julie Sype and illustrated by Mark Uhre, Once Upon a Story You've Always Been Told explicitly turns the traditional damsel-in-distress trope on its side by having the princess fantasize about a female rescuer as opposed to waiting around for the usual Prince Charming. At least in terms of well-known reads, this book is likely the first of its kind that teaches specifically children not all people in need are the same or want the same things.
It takes risks by showing them they shouldn't have to be afraid of being vocal about their feelings and breaking down stigmatic barriers that can harm their development as they get older, which is something that does and has, unfortunately, happened to many members of the LGBTQQIAAP community during their critical years.
I'm happy to see that creators are starting to reach out to children — who are more than likely already thinking about these things without realizing it — through art and are presenting these concepts to them in a way that is easy to understand and doesn't warp their perception of sexuality. It helps them realize they aren't alone with their emotions, that they are completely normal, and it gives them an outlet to learn how to deal with them in healthy ways.
As expected, there are quite a few aspects I enjoy about the book. The important takeaway here is that the princess is vocal about her preferences in response to characters who not even expect, but rather already assume she'll follow tradition "just because." This is legitimately something society needs to stop doing: telling these people what they believe they want and putting words in their mouths because they think it's right for some reason. I like that while it's perfectly acceptable for her to have standards for her dream girl, she also allows for leeway because she realizes no girl will be exactly what she (thinks) she wants.
I love the rhyme scheme; it's definitely a charming and witty throwback to the 80s and 90s. The art style has this classically unique mix of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince" and Roald Dahl's books. It's an aesthetic that's fun and eye-catching for children. I also adore the changes in word font and spacing to indicate an emphasis on those actions and expressions being described. It kept my attention and immersed me in the world.
However, there are some parts of the book I didn't take to as easily. I'm not too keen on the princess being too willing to risk her entire kingdom for a girl. Historically, it wasn't unheard of for figureheads to be placed into power at such a young age, and they've had to pretty much sacrifice their childhoods for the well being of all their citizens. Sure, they'll have had advisors, but the pressure was ultimately put on them to make the final call regardless of the matter at hand.
While I can understand this princess is feeling a surge of momentary freedom she's been mostly, if not completely, deprived of in her young life, it looks irresponsible for her to shirk her obligations to many people who depend on her for one person she hasn't even met yet.
Something that puts me on the fence is the portrayal of the prince. On the one hand, it is amusing — if slightly unnerving when considering the implications — to see a prince who's really just a child being dragged along for the ride and expected to save the princess simply for her beauty and not because she's vital to her kingdom's prosperity. On the other hand, if we took away that fact, I don't see anything wrong with her accepting his help at that moment and then carrying on with her own goals afterward. Who knows, maybe they could have ended up being good friends. Never knock other possibilities!
Since we're on the topic, I'm also at crossroads with the decision to not have her orchestrate her own escape with the help of her love interest. She comes across as smart enough to be able to do so, but at the same time, I acknowledge that being in trouble doesn't necessarily speak to her as a person.
I also understand what the narrative is going for, and it's to focus on giving the damsel-in-distress as she is a distinct personality and the motivation to make a general point about tropes as they relate to gender and sexuality. I'm not letting it stop me from giving the book my recommendation as it is nevertheless an excellent stepping stone for even more stories that can take the idea further. It's also totally worth it for the hilarious amalgamation of old and new and the twist at the end!