How on Earth do you tell a story about a princess under a Sleeping Beauty-type curse and make her truly heroic? You put her in the hands of Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer and cartoonist Ursula Vernon, whose new book Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible finds the silver lining of the soporific curse.
Vernon has wowed us with short stories like the graceful “Jackalope Wives,” comics like Digger, an offbeat fantasy epic starring a no-nonsense wombat, and books like the Dragonbreath series and Castle Hangnail. Harriet the Invincible, the first book in Vernon’s new Hamster Princess series, is another charmer, combining comics and prose to tell the often wry tale of a rough-and-tumble rodent princess who has a very odd reaction to her fairy curse.
You see, when Princess Harriet was just a baby, a wicked fairy placed a curse on her: On her 12th birthday, Harriet will prick her finger on a hamster wheel and fall into a deep sleep. When Harriet, who prefers quail riding and fractions to practicing her posture, learns about the curse, she’s delighted. Since a curse like that will inevitably come true, Harriet is invincible until she turns 12. She leaves castle life and enjoys cliff diving and monster hunting until just before her 12th birthday, when she returns home to face the wicked fairy. But that’s nowhere close to the end of Harriet’s story, as she confronts her destiny head-on, with unexpected consequences.
Vernon plays a lot with fairy tale tropes, giving us tea-making ogres, fairy godmothers who are at once ditzy and haughty, and a horrid mansplaining prince. And while Harriet herself is an accomplished warrior, she’ll have to listen to people much wiser than she if she wants to defeat the curse once and for all. This is all bolstered by Vernon’s chuckle-worth use of language and sense of comedic timing.
We got a chance to chat with Vernon over email about Hamster Princess and what to do if you’re ever facing down a wicked fairy of your own:
You wrote one of my favorite critiques of Disney-style princess stories, “The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight.” What made you decide to write an offbeat princess story aimed more at kids?
Ursula Vernon: Well, one of the unavoidable truths is that little girls seem to really like princesses. (I didn’t, actually, as a kid—I wanted to be a Vulcan—but I was a little weird.) And if you’re re-telling a fairy tale, it seems like you’re not allowed to do anything interesting at all unless you’re a princess! So I set out to tell a princess story, but I wanted to make her a very different sort. And not just that she’s a hamster, or that she rescues herself—we’re in the middle of a backlash, I think, where we have lots of empowered princesses!—but that she is fierce and competent and physically brave.
What I love about your heroes is that they are all so different: the reluctant and pragmatic Digger (of Digger), the exuberant Molly (of Castle Hangnail), and now the forceful Harriet. Do your stories tend to coalesce around a particular character or the other way around?
Oh, they definitely all revolve around the character. Sometimes I’ll set the stage first and the character will walk on, but once they’re on, I’m just running to catch up and scribble notes while they go! And I’m so glad you think they’re different—I am often told that I write very practical heroines, apparently because they do not immediately rush to do the stupidest possible thing under any given circumstances, and it worries me that because they are practical, people will think I’m writing the same character over and over again!
Most of Harriet’s interests are physical: cliff diving, quail riding, monster chasing. Why does she have such a particular passion for fractions?
I was not at all a physical child, after my grandmother nixed the fencing lessons—she said no boy would ever come up to me and ask “Do you fence?” which just goes to show that my grandmother, while excellent in many respects, did not know everything—but I enjoyed fractions. They’re such a tidy way of breaking up the world into parts. Harriet and I had to have something in common, and cliff-diving seemed a little excessive.
Ursula Vernon self-portrait courtesy of Penguin Young Readers.
Harriet meets some very different princes along the way. What qualities did you want to make sure Harriet’s companion embodied? What lessons does Harriet have to learn from other people?
Well, Harriet goes from prince to prince and discovers that they think she’s completely over the top and unacceptable and they’re judging her for it. Which people will certainly do if you’re outrageous! It’s upsetting for her to find out. But the lesson I wanted her to learn is that in the long run, you will find people who want and need the sort of person you are, even if you’re a weird sort of person.
At the same time, her prince—she doesn’t marry him, they’re just friends!—Wilbur is a very sweet, compassionate individual, and he’s very kind. Harriet will occasionally run roughshod over people who aren’t as competent as she is, but Wilbur is the one who wants to talk to them and make everyone happy. In later books, that really comes out a lot more.
He’s also reliable about going to the hardware store when she needs it. I think every one of the Harriet books eventually winds up with someone going to the hardware store. Possibly because I spend so much time at them myself!
Also, he’s a little goth hamster and I think that’s adorable.
One things that I particularly enjoy about Harriet the Invincible is that the typical fairy tale monsters weren’t necessarily foes, and that they could even make choices to live peacefully with rodentkind. Will we see Harriet face some more complex moral choices in future adventures?
Definitely! In the second book, Of Mice and Magic, based on the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Harriet’s got twelve mouse princesses who are under a curse. But she liked her curse, because it made her invincible. So even though everybody wants this curse broken, her first thought it to go talk to the princesses and make sure that’s what they want. As it turns out, their father, the Mouse King (who has taken his organizational skills to a very dark place), is a much bigger problem than the curse itself!
What is your advice to people confronted by wicked fairies?
Attempt to distract them with baked goods or discussion of politics. If you can get them on a tirade, nod agreement to whatever they’re saying. They may forget all about the christening or whatever they showed up for. Failing that, I hear salt and rowan are pretty useful.
Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible is out right now in hardcover and ebook.