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Find more Looking Beyond
It seems like hardly a month goes by without someone talking about Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries on my Twitter feed. OK, so a lot of the time they are talking about one or both of the movies. The first one came out in 2001, and, don’t get me wrong, it’s a cultural masterpiece, with something of a stacked cast (Anne Hathaway in her breakout role! A blonde Mandy Moore as the mean girl! Sandra Oh as the wacky vice principal! JULIE ANDREWS IN HER TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO FILM! The sequel was produced by Whitney Houston and written by Shonda Rhimes, and it features a baby-faced Chris Pine! Come on). The movies are great, but as any fan of the books can tell you—Cabot’s grandmère is a lot more Yzma than Julie Andrews—they exist in a different reality.
The Princess Diaries, the titular first book in a series with 10 core books, was released 20 years ago, in October 2000. It wasn’t Cabot’s first novel, though it was the first she published under her own name (she’d published adult romances as Patricia Cabot). Though she’s been wildly prolific since then, churning out popular books for adults, young adults, and middle-graders, the Princess Diaries books remain her most popular and, perhaps, her most beloved.
The series opens as Mia Thermopolis, large of foot and small of breast, begins high school in Manhattan. Shy Mia often plays second fiddle to her somewhat-domineering best friend Lilly, so her artist single mother has given her a diary where she can be honest about her feelings. And it turns out that Mia really needs the space to unleash: not only is she failing algebra, nursing a crush on an unattainable, popular senior, and dealing with her mom dating one of her teachers, but she’s just learned that her dad? He’s a prince. That makes Mia the sole heir to the throne of Genovia, and her terrifying grandmother is here to show her the royal ropes.
Ten novels and a handful of novellas make up Mia’s journals from her freshman through senior years as she comes into her own, as a princess, yes, but mostly as a young woman. It’s a book that, packed full of pop-culture references, could have quickly become dated: Mia and her friends watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Party of Five; they compare cute boys to the Baldwin brothers; they reference Britney Spears and Shania Twain; and Mia’s mom has a “Free Winona” T-shirt. But the series was anchored by Mia’s warm, often relatably high-strung voice, and it’s through her eyes that readers experience the ups and downs of high school, the seemingly world-ending tribulations of teen friendships and romances, and, yes, the unlikely experience of being an American princess. As Mia gets older, the question of what that birthright means—and the ethics of a nonelected government—start to creep into her narrative as well.
The books were so enduringly popular that, in 2015, Cabot released Royal Wedding, an adult novel that follows a 26-year-old Mia’s engagement and adult struggles with the pressures of fame. Over the last few months, she’s been posting “The Corona Princess Diaries” to her website, playfully explaining how, as Mia’s official “royal biographer,” it’s her duty to share how Mia, the leader of a small country, would be handling our current situation. Twenty years on, people still want to hear from this princess.
But about that princess thing: the 2010s, as the last volume in Mia’s original series was publishing, was a popular time for them in YA fiction. Prince William was getting married, the U.S. had royal fever, and books like Kiera Cass’ Selection series were selling big. While the assertion has been made that this trope is played out, the surface has barely been scratched; it’s the perfect way to interrogate power structures and political relationships. When it comes to the things you can do with a princess narrative, Cabot’s benchmark series is just the beginning. Read on for a list of books taking this beloved trope in fascinating new directions.
Further Reading: A Royal Redux
American Royals. By Katharine McGee. 2019. Random, $18.99 (9781984830173). Gr. 10–12.
In an alternate universe where America is a monarchy instead of a democracy, Princess Beatrice prepares to become the first woman allowed the right to inherit the throne.
The Belles. By Dhonielle Clayton. 2018. Disney/Freeform, $17.99 (9781484728499). Gr. 9–12.
People are born gray and ugly in Orléans; Camellia and her sisters are blessed with the ability to give temporary beauty. Camellia fights to become the chosen favorite of the royal family and becomes ensnared in a dark political plot.
Cinderella Is Dead. By Kalynn Bayron. 2020. Bloomsbury, $18.99 (9781547603879). Gr. 8–12.
At a grand annual custom handed down from the original Cinderella, girls of age are each chosen by their own Prince Charming. Brave Sophia attends the ball not to find a prince but to dismantle a broken system.
Given. By Nandi Taylor. 2020. Wattpad, $17.99 (9781989365045). Gr. 7–11.
As she tries to keep her throne from being usurped, Yenni, the princess of the Yirba tribe, travels to a colonizer’s nation to study battle magic and finds herself betrothed to a dragon.
Glitter. By Aprilynne Pike. 2016. Random, $17.99 (9781101933701). Gr. 9–12.
Sonoman-Versaille is a futuristic world that mimics eighteenth-century France. After her mother blackmails the murderous king into proposing to Danica, Danica attempts to barter passage to the modern world by selling a new designer drug to the members of the royal court—but first she has to understand them.
Her Royal Highness. By Rachel Hawkins. 2019. Putnam, $17.99 (9781524738266). Gr. 9–12.
When she lands a full ride to a boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, self-proclaimed nerd Millie Quint finds herself falling head over heels for her roommate, Flora—who happens to be a princess of Scotland.
Of Curses and Kisses. By Sandhya Menon. 2020. Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, $18.99 (9781534417540). Gr. 9–12.
Though India is a democracy now, Jaya is still a princess who’s devoted to her family. When she learns she’ll be attending boarding school with the son of her family’s biggest rivals, she’s determined to get revenge.
Prince in Disguise. By Stephanie Kate Strohm. 2017. Little, Brown, $17.99 ( 9781484775677). Gr. 8–10.
Dylan’s beautiful beauty-queen sister is engaged to a Scottish royal, subject of the reality star Prince in Disguise. As their wedding approaches, Dylan would rather hide in the background, but instead finds herself in the spotlight—and falling for a groomsman who isn’t what he seems.
That Inevitable Victorian Thing. By E. K. Johnston. 2017. Dutton, $17.99 (9781101994979). Gr. 9–12.
In an alternate future where the British Empire never fell, Crown Princess Victoria-Margaret bargains for a summer posing as a commoner in Toronto before she’s crowned. When she meets Helena, her predictable future is suddenly anything but.
Tokyo Ever After. By Emiko Jean. May 2021. Flatiron, $18.99 (9781250766601). Gr. 9–12.
This one’s not out till next spring, but put it on your TBR now. Izumi Tanaka struggles with being Japanese American in her mostly white California town. When she finds out that her long-lost father is actually the Crown Prince of Japan, Izzy suddenly has to learn how to be a princess, too.
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