“The Princess Diaries” taught me everything I know about courage

I was still reeling from the blur of finishing my thesis and graduating with my MFA when I heard that Meg Cabot was releasing another Princess Diaries book. It felt like fate, as it often does when things work out suspiciously well in life. I had just cited Cabot as an influential writer in my thesis defense a few weeks earlier, and this announcement felt like a gift to help me in a time marred by anxiety and insecurity. I decided to reread the series, and it truly felt like revisiting an old friend.

I read the first Princess Diaries book when I was in the fourth grade and I immediately fell in love. Much like Mia Thermopolis, I was too tall, very shy, and awkward. Yet, what I most related to was Mia’s perspective; her journal portrayed a young girl who was observant, but deeply afraid of participating in anything outside of her little bubble. As a rather introverted child, I felt a connection to Mia in a way that was more real than any non-fictitious friend. Mia was such a strong influence on me that when I adopted a dog in my early twenties, I named her Mia.

Over the course of 11 volumes (and four novellas) Mia’s character develops into a strong yet vulnerable young woman, trying to navigate her way through the world as a princess. The journalistic style of the book allows readers to follow Mia’s unique perspective as she finds her voice, even when it means defying the ever-terrifying Grandmère (who is definitely not Julie Andrews). Watching Mia learn how to deal with mean girls, her prom obsession, and the constant stream of pop culture references made me feel like I was reliving a part of my adolescence that I didn’t think I would miss. While I had a few flashbacks to my excessively awkward preteendom (I had successfully blocked out body glitter for so many years), I am grateful for the experience of rereading a series that was so important to my younger self.

While I expected to enjoy the experience and be reminded of the world of an early 2000s teenage girl, I was surprised by what I learned in my rereading. I didn’t notice my first time through the books, but Mia is a strong feminist role model. So much of the series rests on Mia’s struggle not only to overcome her own shyness (and fear of algebra), but to discover who she is and what she has to offer the world. At first I could only see how much of Mia’s sensitivity and perpetual state of worrying reflected my own youth, which this read round I found frustrating. I wanted to shake my fictional friend and tell her to stop obsessing and letting her fears keep her from pursuing what she wanted in life.

And that’s when it hit me: Mia’s struggle was not just that of my younger self, it was my current situation. The summer after I completed my MFA writing program was filled with self-doubt and fear and writer’s block and unanswered questions. I had loved being a writing student and worked hard to earn my degree, but I was still terrified of trying to be a real writer. I kept myself from submitting my writing as a sort of preemptive rejection, just as Mia kept herself from standing up for herself and her feelings. Mia’s greatest challenge in life is not dealing with the responsibilities of being a princess, it’s learning to trust her own value and embrace risk.

If someone were to read my journal, they would experience the same frustration I did reading Mia’s. They’d want to yell at me to stop being afraid, because nothing is actually wrong. By the time I read the newly released eleventh book, I felt like my old friend had contacted me, nearly a decade later, to help me through one more crisis.

In my rereading of the old books and the gift of the new one, I found that the wisdom of The Princess Diaries, unlike body glitter, is not something that can be outgrown.

Jaclyn Geier is a recent graduate of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program where she studied Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband Alex and their two rescue pets: a nervous dog named Mia and a confused cat named Nora. She loves thrift shopping, collecting hats, and Tina Fey.

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