What do you get when you put a princess in combat boots or a hot 100-year old ghost in a high school girl’s bedroom?
Two hit young adult series and a foundation on which to build a chick-lit empire.
When Meg Cabot published the first entries in her Mediator and Princess Diaries series in 2000, she gave voice to two heroines who reflected the pop culture obsessions, adolescent anxieties, and inner desires of twenty-first century teenagers. With last summer’s release of The Princess Diaries: Royal Wedding and The Mediator: Remembrance’s February publication date, Cabot returns to these beloved characters with adult entries in their saga.
The final young adult (YA) Mediator book debuted in 2004 and The Princess Diaries concluded its initial run in 2009, though Cabot did occasionally give updates on Mia via the Princess’ blog. With the original series, Cabot captured the imagination of tween and teenage girls with relatable characters and frothy, fun plotting. Princess’ Mia and Mediator’s Suze, though dealing with extraordinary challenges like ruling a country and fighting ghosts, face the same problems of the average high school girl—unrequited crushes, torment from the popular kids, and homework.
Speaking to Cabot over the phone, the irreverent, occasionally bawdy, unapologetic voice of her heroines is on display. Reading one of her books is like a late-night heart-to-heart with a best friend and interviewing is her is delightfully similar.
When I ask Cabot why she chose to write adult books this time around, she gleefully admits, “Oh my god, to put sex in it! I’ll just be honest with you—I wanted there to be sex… We all know teenagers have sex, let’s face it, but when you try to put it in a book, I feel very restricted.”
Cabot’s books have always handled sex and the gender politics of desire with a deft and insightful hand. Within a year, Cabot published a Princess Diaries book where Mia decides she is not ready to lose her virginity and another YA novel, American Girl: Ready or Not where protagonist Samantha Madison makes the opposite choice. Cabot admits this was a purposeful juxtaposition in response to fan mail.
She says, “I did hear a lot from readers…asking a lot of questions about if I go ahead and have sex with my boyfriend, will that make me a slut? and that kind of stuff. So that was something it seemed like a lot of these girls couldn’t talk to their moms about, so it was something I wanted to talk about through my books… I wanted to let girls know that there’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying a healthy sex life, as long as they’re safe about it, just like with the boys. But there’s also nothing wrong with if you don’t want to do that, so I wanted to represent all the different sides of that.”
This validation of a diversity of experience and her array of complex, nuanced heroines are an ideal model for twenty-first century feminism. Her heroines, ranging from the bad-ass, action-hero antics of The Mediator’s Suze to the chronically insecure Princess Mia, display a wide range of girlhood.
While Princess Mia’s romantic travails make for juicy storytelling, her diaries also recount her maturation and inner growth as she learns to stand up for herself as a friend and ruler. Her happy ending comes via her own empowerment and pursuit of her dreams—the prince charming is just an added bonus. Cabot hopes to impart this message as a means of combatting the fact that girls “are constantly bombarded by these images in the media that maybe they need to be highly sexualized or are not necessarily worth as much as men.”
Still, Cabot would never want her books to be seen as preachy and wants her themes to come second to the confectionary delight of her novels. She says, “I hate message-y books… I like to read for entertainment, but I call it the little spoonful of medicine in the giant vat of sugar that is the rest of the books.”
This sugary approach is instrumental to the meaning and success of her message. Cabot’s writings, from her novels to her online author “diary,” promote a strong message of girl power, but never invalidate stereotypically “female” interests such as royal gossip, fashion, or romance.
Through her characters and their actions, Cabot teaches readers that feminism is not a militant extremism, but merely the belief that women should have the same range of judgment-free choice in their lives that men have available to them. In Princess Mia’s case, just because she wears a tiara and reads romance novels, that does not make her passion for her country or environmental justice any less valid. Women and girls have both the right to be taken seriously and the right to value what others might deem frivolous.
As an author of “chick-lit,” Cabot encounters this disdain for feminine interests in the publishing world. Recent studies have revealed the appalling disparity between the number of female and male authors being reviewed or nominated for literary awards. There is an internalized belief that genre books are not “serious” enough to merit real praise or critical consideration.
Cabot is weary of having to justify her chosen genres and cites a quote from mystery novelist Lee Childs that “genre fiction is the boat on which literary fiction clings to like barnacles.” Best-selling mystery and romance novels prop up the cost of publishing literary fiction. Genre trappings do not mean these novels don’t explore equally valid and universal themes such as family, love, and justice. As Cabot says, “it’s exactly what [literary fiction authors] are writing. It’s just marketed in a different way and written by women.”
“It was very fun to explore how these characters would be as twenty-somethings, and I think that was the most challenging part. I’m in my forties, and I was thinking what kind of challenges are twenty-somethings facing today?”
Regardless, Cabot continues to write for a hungry audience at a prolific pace. She says the approaching fifteen-year anniversary of both series’ inauguration inspired her to revisit Mia and Suze’s stories. She was on vacation in France and without a book contract for the first time since 1998 wondering, “If I could write anything I wanted to, what would that be?”
This freedom allowed her to consider revisiting the lives of her two most iconic characters, as well as the prospect of connecting with readers on a new level. Many of Cabot’s fans, myself included, began reading her novels when they were in middle school and are now in their mid to late twenties. Her audience has grown up with her characters, and Cabot felt it was natural shift: “They’re characters in their twenties— so I don’t really think that’s a YA book anymore.”
Though Cabot did note this was one of the more difficult parts of writing (besides remembering every character’s eye color): “It was very fun to explore how these characters would be as twenty-somethings, and I think that was the most challenging part. I’m in my forties, and I was thinking what kind of challenges are twenty-somethings facing today?”
Her take on these issues is nuanced and her voice is authentic, which helps her characters inspire, empower, and entertain women. Through her work, we can find our own inner strength and voice, as well as a confidante in the form of a book. Cabot never set out to inspire a generation of readers and has been bowled over by the impact of her work. “Now that I’m hearing from readers who grew up with the books, so many of them have told me that because of your books, I’ve gone on to become a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor or something,” she says. “It’s incredible to me that that’s because of a book about a princess.”
In the US, The Princess Diaries: Royal Wedding was released on June 2nd, 2015 and The Mediator: Remembrance was released on February 2nd, 2016.