(Editor’s Note: We invited Kieran Buvala to be our guest reviewer for this book. Kieran writes on issues of beauty and fashion for her new blog at thesunnymiss.com as well as many other sites.)
In a society that continuously pits beauty against brains and tries to argue that looks triumph over character, or vice versa, it’s nice to come across a book that attempts to break that mold, even if the approach isn’t perfect.
The Ravenous Gown, from author and storyteller Steffani Raff, is a collection of fifteen tales that examine how we have typically viewed princesses and female fairytale characters in general, and rejects the idea that they are only there to serve the purpose of being pretty and, well, not much else. That idea is an outdated and inaccurate depiction but is something that is ingrained in our society to this day. If you need evidence of this fact, recall how many times you’ve heard someone use the term “princess” to insult someone else. It’s about time we started redefining the word, and that’s just what this book aims to do.
The book opens with a short story about a princess who successfully outsmarts a treacherous dragon, but is turned away from a royal banquet and banished to the kitchen because of her dirty appearance and scorched clothing. She later returns to the same banquet and shocks everyone in attendance with an act designed to prove a point: you should never judge someone based on appearance alone. (Editor’s note: One of the strengths of this book is how Raff creatively re-purposes so many world-tales to fit this book. This first story is a good example of that process. Kudos.)
I think this was the perfect tale to start out the book-- one that introduces a character who is a beautiful princess, but is also smart and resourceful and knows how to stand up for herself. The content after this first story, however, is where the message behind the book seemed to get a bit muddled.
As I read through the next several stories in The Ravenous Gown, it began to feel as if I were reading about the exact same princess in each chapter, even though they were all different characters. It seems as though, in what was likely an attempt to create strong princess characters, the author ended up creating one general character type instead. It made for a repetitive reading process and made the stories feel like they were dragging on. Among other similarities, many of the the princesses in the book seem to lack an essential trait: self confidence.
It’s not to say that a princess or average girl can’t be a strong character (or person) without having self confidence, but for a book all about encouraging girls to love themselves, whatever their flaws, many of the princesses didn’t seem to love themselves until someone else said they should. In one of the tales, a princess laments that nobody will ever love her because of her “biggest” flaw, which in this case is a set of smelly feet, and she is reassured that yes, somebody will love her one day despite her odorous toes. While this is not exactly a problematic sentiment, it would be more encouraging and fitting to the theme if her parents assured her that even if no prince were to fall in love with her, she could still love herself and her own stinky feet.
(Spoiler alert in this paragraph!) In that same story, the princess’ mother reveals that she, too, has a set of “even larger, even smellier” feet. The princess then calls her father a “hero” for having married a woman with feet like that. In my eyes, this sends a message that is contradictory to the book’s theme. I’m not sure if I would want to tell children (or anyone) that loving someone with a flaw, no matter the size, is a heroic act. It’s just love, and suggesting otherwise makes it sound like only a hero could look past your flaws, which takes us back to the “only a knight in shining armor can save the girl” mindset.
However, on the topic of loving something despite its flaws, that’s kind of the relationship that I developed with The Ravenous Gown. It definitely has flaws and is certainly not the be-all and end-all guide to “real beauty,” but I do think it’s a good start. While a smidge one-dimensional, the princesses in this book are stronger and more courageous than many other popular-culture fairy tales tend to portray them, and plenty of girls will be able to relate to them and their struggles. Some of the stories might be a bit too long to be able to fully engage a very young child, but I would suggest giving this book to your preteens, regardless of their gender, and let it open up a dialogue about self worth, true beauty, and a little bit of dragon fighting.
Storyteller.net was given a review copy of the book by the publisher. We then passed it on to Kieran, in order to complete this review.