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Book 7

I’m Meep: a 20something librarian, originally from New England, living in Tokyo. I eat books and bleed poetry.

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Notebooks of a Middle School Princess

Notebooks of a Middle School Princess - Meg Cabot The Good
OK, I bought this book for the cover – a Black princess? I’ll take it. My students love princess books and I want to at least get a little diversity in the princess collection. (But more about Olivia’s heritage and the role it plays (or doesn’t) in “the bad.”)

This is a fun read aloud. I read it to third and fourth graders, and for the most part, they enjoyed it. Some of the kids (boys, especially) were all “eww, princesses” when we started, but they got into it eventually. I’m not usually a very hammy reader, but this book really called for my best Valley Girl accent and I went for it.
That’s … pretty much it.

The Bad
This book is full of wasted opportunities. I really feel like Meg Cabot just didn’t care, because she knew it’d get published and sell a zillion copies on the coattails of Princess Dairies. (The movie version, anyway. This audience is way too young for the books.)

There’s so much potential in a “secret royalty” plot, not to mention the best friend’s sneaking suspicion that Olivia’s aunt and uncle are car thieves. But the biggest letdown of all? Olivia’s race is barely addressed.

On one hand, it’s refreshing that this isn’t a “problem novel” about Olivia’s mixed race heritage. She can just go on being a princess like whatever. On the other hand, the diversity is merely cosmetic: you could swap out a few descriptive words here and there and Olivia could be Japanese-American, or Nishi’s family could be from Ghana, and nothing would change. I’m not saying these characters should be reduced to stereotypes, but their identities have real world consequences that never show up in the story.

In an obviously contemporary story (lots of cell phones and selfies and texting), that’s just lazy. Olivia’s race is briefly addressed when a tabloid posits that Olivia was kept a secret because her mother is African-American, but like so many interesting plot threads, it was ultimately dropped in favor of princess porn, and never addressed again.

Speaking of “princess porn,” I know this is ostensibly about the joy of finding your real family, but despite the stated moral at the end - “And not because it turns out I’m a princess and I get to live in a beautiful palace [etc.] … It’s because I finally have a family that loves me.” – the real reward for Olivia is moving up to the 1%. The last chapter (the only chapter set in Genovia) is six pages talking about the perks of being royalty, and a paragraph or two of didacticism on “the real meaning of family.”

Olivia’s adoptive family (her aunt, step-uncle, and step-cousins) are cartoonish, half-baked evil stepfamily, and Olivia’s “”real”” family mostly show their affection by buying her fancy things – and one time showing concern for her bloody nose. If this is a realistic enough world that snotty people meticulously avoid gluten because it might make them fat, it should be a realistic enough world to have nuanced familial relationships. Not to mention, it would be a more interesting story if she lived with a loving family and had to choose between the better of two good options.

Meg Cabot didn’t come here to tell a good story. She came here to cash in, and it shows.

Judging a Book by Its Cover
Like I said, I bought this book for its cover. Olivia looks cute and approachable, just the kind of thing my patrons look for in a princess book. None of this weird silhouette to disguise that the main character is a person of color, either. There’s an African-American girl right on the cover of a book with the word “Princess” in the title.

A lot of negative reviews here soften the blow with “I’m not the target audience,” which… a badly written book for children is still a badly written book. I’m a “professional reader” (elementary school librarian) and I’m here to say: this book is just bad and Meg Cabot milked the cash cow by spinning off her most popular series without giving it any of the wit or charm of the original and maybe brought in a few new readers by cynically exploiting #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

That’s not just bad writing, it’s insulting. Kids are smart.