Meet Princess Priya. She is one of the featured characters in Her Highness Builds Robots, a new coloring book created by Beth Winters ’14 and her twin sister, Laura. The book takes a sly poke at stale storybook versions of women’s lives, recasting the standard fairy-tale happy ending of marriage and luxurious living to include adventure, professional achievement and advanced degrees.
“Getting married was the happiest day of Princess Priya’s life,” we read on page 4 of the book, above an illustration of the princess in gown and tiara tossing her wedding bouquet beside her epaulet-wearing prince. But on the facing page, the princess is wearing a graduation gown and tossing a mortarboard skyward, and the accompanying text adds, “Second only to getting her Ph.D. in chemical engineering!”
Beth said that she and her sister aimed to challenge some of the insidious messages popular culture sends about the avenues available to and appropriate for young women. The project, like so many great ideas, originated in annoyance. One day last year, Laura happened upon a coloring book filled with images of dainty princesses picking out perfect dresses for their perfect weddings. The book rankled.
“She was alarmed by the messages these sorts of books send to children,” Beth said. So Laura, a 2014 Northwestern graduate, began making subtle alterations to the offending passages, shifting the focus from palace balls and swooning brides to more contemporary lives of high achievement. In the new versions, the princesses are less concerned with their ball gowns and ponies than with building robots and running for elective office.
When she began posting some of her rewritten coloring-book pages on Instagram, Laura was flooded with positive reactions. The sisters began to realize that there might be an audience for a fresh take on princesshood.
“We’re always spitballing ideas, and most of them we never act on. But this one just stuck,” Beth said. “We had both just finished college and the time was right.”
The sisters began working on their own, stereotype-busting princess coloring book. They divided the labor: Laura took charge of the creative vision and content; Beth, who majored in business and communication studies at Elmhurst, managed the business side. They enlisted the services of artist Tyler Feder, who began to turn the Winters’ concept into finished sketches, ready to be colored in by readers. To fund the project, the sisters turned to the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter. In just 72 hours, they raised $2,500, on their way to a total of more than $6,400. The funds allowed them to compensate Feder for her work and to print an initial run of 1,000 books. Offered for sale on Etsy, the first print run sold out in a month.
“To have so many people react so positively, there’s nothing better,” Beth said.
The coloring book introduces us to six princesses—Priya, Rafa, Holly, Diamond, Taylor, Jae and Juanita—who make a notably more diverse lineup than the usual bunch of Disneyish princesses. One is tattooed, one wears a headscarf, one uses a wheelchair, one is bespectacled. All are seriously empowered.
“After Priya won the Prince’s love… She also won their game of chess,” the book tells us. And, “Princess Jae may not be a princess for much longer… Her dream is to become President Jae!”
The book’s vision is rooted in the sisters’ upbringing in Mount Prospect.
“We always had strong woman role models,” Beth said. “Our mother taught us that we could be whatever we wanted to be. There were never any boundaries.”
A new run of Her Highness Builds Robots is now available on Etsy and at select retail locations, including Women and Children First bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville. In late May, Beth and her sister are on their way to Book Expo America, the annual publishing-industry convention in New York City, to promote the book. And Her Highness Builds Robots may not be their last princess-based project. Beth says the two are at work on another project, though she declined to share details.
Whatever the project, it’s sure to have a storybook ending.