I’ve been following Jason Porath’s Tumblr Rejected Princesses (and the blog that followed it and the Facebook page) for two years and a bit. The project began in a discussion with his Dreamworks’ co-workers over what historical woman was least likely to be the heroine of a children’s animated movie. He discovered that few of his co-workers had heard of historical figures like 17th century Angolan queen Nzinga,* who successfully defended her country from the Portuguese, or World War II Soviet tank driver Mariya Oktyabrskaya. He set out to change that.
Porath’s Tumblr has spun off a book: Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions and Heretics. It is a collection of carefully researched, smart-mouthed essays about women who exemplify the idea that well-behaved women seldom make history.** The essays are illustrated in a style that nods toward Disney princesses without sexualizing their subjects–except in the cases of women whose stories depend on their sexuality. ** Some, such as Harriet Tubman and Joan of Arc, will be recognizable to everyone—though details of their stories may surprise readers. Many are virtually unknown. Few are actual princesses.
Rejected Princesses pushes the boundaries of the genre of collective biographies of groundbreaking historical women, often designed to provide female role models for girls. Porath includes stories that may not be suitable for children, or for adults looking for heroines—his historical figures are after all chosen because they’d never be the subject of a children’s movie. ( He’s colored-coded stories by level of moral ambiguity.) In the end, he urges girls to glory in the fact that they come from “a long line of bold, strong, unbroken women”—princesses or otherwise.
*One of my personal favorites.
**If you love the asterisks here in the Margins, you’ll enjoy Porath’s style.
***Such as the aforementioned Queen Nzinga, who followed the lead of many male rulers throughout history and kept a 60-man male harem.
Most of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers