Today I had the privilege of reading Robert Munch's The Paper Bag Princess
to a small group of third graders. I've ready it for years to first graders and kindergartners, and for the past year have been reading it to my daughter. I've never read it to older students before, especially not ones who were hearing it for the first time. Since I have the book memorized (not an exageration, I have recited it on car trips to a very fussy toddler) I wasn't really even thinking much about it. I'd chosen it so we could talk about how the main character is strong and stands up for herself. (This is a social skills lunch group). I wasn't prepared for the deeper level thinking that third graders would bring to the text, or their response to a fairy tale like story that didn't fit in with their schema.
If you've never read it before* it is about a princess who is set to marry a prince. However, a dragon interferes with these plans when he burns down her castle and carries off the prince.
Right here the third graders gasped. This is NOT what was suppose to happen they pointed out. The dragon was suppose
to take the princess. In fact, when we spent time predicting what would happen before we even started reading that was exactly what they predicted- the dragon would take the princess, the prince would rescue her by physically fighting the dragon, and then the prince and princess would get married. Just like every other fairy tale.
Maybe, one boy pointed out, the dragon was so tired of kidnapping princesses and then having the prince come along and fight him that he figured if he stole a prince the princess wouldn't be able to fight back. In all the years I've taught this book I've never once thought about the dragon's motivation. Maybe I am starting to warm up to third grade.
We got past that first shock and read on, finding that Elizabeth (the princess) had to outwit the dragon instead of fighting him. Their eyes shown as they listened to what she did and they made their own plans on how they would trick the dragon. One boy made a long list of all the ways a dragon could hurt him and then all the ways he could neutralize those threats (my words, not his).
Then of course, we came to the climax. Elizabeth tricks the dragon, rescues Prince Ronald and then, *spoiler alert* Prince Ronald takes one look at her, lists all the things that are wrong with her (she is dirty, she smells, she is wearing a paper bag) and tells her to come back when she looks like a real princess.
"I don't understand" one girl said. "That's not what is supposed to happen. She RESCUED him." The girls sat and stared at me like I'd read the words on the page incorrectly. "Why doesn't he get it?"
They were all horrified by his lack of respect for the princess who just rescued him, but they were all surprised when we turned the page and Elizabeth and Ronald don't get married after all.
"Other stories end with a happy ending" one girl said, looking perplexed. That of course opened the door to discussing what a happy ending really is (well, it was happy for Elizabeth, but not Ronald one third grader pointed out).
It was definitely the most thought provoking discussions I've ever had about the book, but also the most enlightening lesson (for me). I've always read it to children who are young enough to naturally accept the story. Reading it to third graders who have a strong schema of what a story should look like changed the dynamics of the lesson completely. It no longer was about Elizabeth, but instead about what we expect from stories and why they are all the same. Why do all the stories end with happy endings, with the princess getting married and the prince rescuing her? It was fascinating to watch the group of students struggle with understanding an amusing and entertaining simple text simply because it challenged their own schema of how stories work.
*You should immediately run to the library and check it out. Or buy it on Kindle. It's available there too