REVIEW: Rejected Princesses – Jason Porath

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Author: Jason Porath (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Day Street Books

Genre: Non-fiction, humour, history

Well-behaved women seldom make history. Good thing these women are far from well behaved . . .Illustrated in a contemporary animation style, Rejected Princessesturns the ubiquitous “pretty pink princess” stereotype portrayed in movies, and on endless toys, books, and tutus on its head, paying homage instead to an awesome collection of strong, fierce, and yes, sometimes weird, women: warrior queens, soldiers, villains, spies, revolutionaries, and more who refused to behave and meekly accept their place.An entertaining mix of biography, imagery, and humor written in a fresh, young, and riotous voice, this thoroughly researched exploration salutes these awesome women drawn from both historical and fantastical realms, including real life, literature, mythology, and folklore. Each profile features an eye-catching image of both heroic and villainous women in command from across history and around the world, from a princess-cum-pirate in fifth century Denmark, to a rebel preacher in 1630s Boston, to a bloodthirsty Hungarian countess, and a former prostitute who commanded a fleet of more than 70,000 men on China’s seas.

There’s a chance you may already be familiar with Rejected Princesses, as the blog ran for five years between 2014 and 2019 before going on indefinite hiatus. The pitch: Who were the incredible women in history and myth least likely to get Disney films made about them? This is the first of two books put together for the project, the other is titled delightfully Tough Mothers and focuses on – you guessed it – mothers who kicked ass.This is really an incredible project. Porath acknowledges he is no historian, but his writing style is accessible and humorous, making it easy to get to grips with each incredible woman he chooses to showcase. He pointedly chooses women from all eras of history, from all around the world, mixing able-bodied and disabled heroines alike. As these things go, Rejected Princesses could almost be the blueprint for representation. Just reading it feels empowering.There’s an awful lot in there, it showcases a huge amount of women – over 100 – but it’s ideal for dipping in and out of. Each woman has her own entry, complete with a gorgeous, full-colour drawing in the style of a traditional Disney animation (in keeping with the Rejected Princesses theme), and notes on the art. While Porath doesn’t provide an in-depth history on each woman (it is based on a blog after all, so it’s largely conversational in tone and quite broad strokes, he doesn’t try to airbrush the history. While all of these women were incredible, not all of them were good people; a lot of them had quite traumatic things happen to them, and some of them did horrible things to other people. That’s why it’s worth noting that, despite the design and the name, this isn’t a book for young children. On the website they recommend 12+ as the reading age, and have provided this brilliant ratings system which is used throughout the book:Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 14.05.28I talked about ratings and warnings on books in a blog post ages ago, and I still maintain they could be a useful tool in all books, but Porath uses them to great effect here. None of his histories go into bloody details, but the truth is that history isn’t always pretty, and topics are touched upon which could be uncomfortable for people. Many women in this book suffer sexual assault, there are forced marriages, violence, and murder.The art throughout the book is gorgeous, and the details for them are fantastic. Each entry comes with notes on the art, explaining some of the included details in the image and how it relates to either the individual’s story or the historical setting.

It’s a really beautiful book, but perhaps not ideal for reading for long periods of time in hard copy. It’s a very large, heavy, hardback book, so if you have accessibility needs then it probably won’t be the most comfortable thing to read. That said, it’s not designed to be read all in one go for long spells. It’s designed to read maybe one or two entries at a time. It’s a coffee table book, for flicking through until something catches your interest, not a historical book to read cover-to-cover in a sitting. And there’s definitely plenty in it to catch your interest.

This is an encyclopedia of incredible women with incredible stories who did amazing things. It’s written in a way which is accessible and engaging. The narratives are full of humour and heart and empathy, but also of natural excitement about how amazing these women are. Porath clearly loves his subject, and is so delighted to be finding out all these things and sharing this knowledge with the world. It’s a lot of fun to be on the journey with him, and I hope that one day the project is revived, because it’s a fantastic enterprise.

Briefly:

  • An accessible, fun book looking at incredible women through history, covering the good and the bad and everything in between, with gorgeous art to accompany every entry.
  • This book isn’t heavily detailed, but it is thoughtful and there’s enough to inspire you to further research.
  • While there are two books in the series, I compared the contents and it seems like there’s a fair amount of overlap between Rejected Princesses and Tough Mothers. If you were looking to buy one, I’d recommend looking at the website and seeing which one is more up your alley.

Rating: 5/5 – this is a wonderful book. I don’t buy many coffee table books myself, but this is one I would have bought myself if I hadn’t been gifted it.