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"Princess Truly" & the Power of Representation: An Interview with Author Kelly Greenawalt

"'My Best Friend' is about the instant heart connection between two girls who meet for the first time."

Princess Truly

After her daughter came home in tears from preschool because she didn't have "magical pretty princess hair" like her friends, Kelly Greenawalt searched for a picture book to share with her starring a princess with natural puffy curls — and when she couldn't find what she was looking for, the mother of seven decided to write one. Kelly's first picture book, I Am Truly, created with her friend and illustrator Amariah Rauscher, became a surprise hit and has now grown into an early reader series as part of Scholastic's Acorn line.

The five Princess Truly early readers follow this spunky, optimistic character with her rainbow rocket boots and magical, sparkly curls on a series of adventures, from day-to-day ones like sleepovers with friends to more fantastical outings like a trip to the South Pole to frolic with penguins. Filled with vibrant, full-color artwork and simple text, these short stories are perfect for emerging readers from ages 4 to 6 eager to read on their own. And, while the Princess Truly stories are full of fun and adventure, Publishers Weekly points out that "many children (and their caregivers) will also appreciate that, while Princess Truly does have magical skills, what makes her truly 'super' is her kindness, empathy, and creative problem-solving."

A Mighty Girl spoke to Kelly about her experience as a first-time author, her motivation to write Princess Truly, and why diverse representation is important in children's books.

Our Interview With Author Kelly Greenawalt

Can you start off by describing your books and their central character, Princess Truly, for our readers?

Princess Truly isn’t an ordinary princess. In fact, she’s rather extraordinary. She is a smart, brave, capable, and creative girl with magical curly hair that loves adventure. She’s an inventor, an explorer, a musician, and so much more. Princess Truly is a character that girls can identify with and that parents WANT them to identify with. We are passionate about creating books that help children develop self-confidence. The Princess Truly reader series has been thoughtfully designed to engage young readers; they are colorful, fully illustrated, and easy to read. Most importantly, they are full of magical realism and they are so much fun to read.

What inspired you to write the Princess Truly series?

When my daughter, Kaia, was in preschool her class was asked to dress up as their favorite character for a storybook parade. Kaia was enamored with Rapunzel. When Kaia told her friend that she was going to dress up like Rapunzel, her friend said that Kaia couldn’t because she didn’t have “magical pretty princess hair.” What she meant is that Kaia’s hair was not long, straight and blonde. Kaia is black; she has glorious curls. My sweet girl came home in tears, convinced she couldn’t be a princess with magical curls. She had never seen a princess with magical hair that looked like hers. Representation matters. I searched high and low for a book featuring a character she could identify with. When I came up empty handed, I wrote a book. When the first book was finished, I knew that it special. I felt compelled to share it with the world because there were other little girls that needed Truly. What started off as this very small project has blossomed into something bigger than I ever imagined. These days I am frequently tagged in pictures of little girls all over the world who have dressed up as Princess Truly for storybook parades at their schools.

Kelly Greenawalt with her two oldest daughters, Calista and Kaia.

In creating this series, you've collaborated with illustrator Amariah Rauscher. How did that relationship develop and how does your collaborative creative process work?

I had admired Amariah’s artwork on Etsy for months and had ordered a few prints for my daughter’s bedroom. When I was writing the very first Princess Truly book, I couldn’t stop thinking about one of the prints in Kaia’s room — a beautiful black girl with gorgeous curls sitting on a tree branch reading a book. I knew Amariah would be the perfect artist to bring Princess Truly to life. When I initially asked her if she was interested in illustrating my small self-published project, she turned me down. I can be incredibly persistent. A few months later, I asked again, and she agreed.

Amariah and I work very closely together. Sometimes she will have an illustration idea before a book is written and I will work it into the story. Sometimes I’ll have an idea that only works with a particular illustration. There is a lot of collaboration. We don’t always agree, either, but that give and take usually births something beautiful. I don’t think many authors and illustrators have the kind of relationship that we do. I believe it stems from our small start, two moms working together on a small self-published project with our daughters in mind. These days we have an amazingly creative team at Scholastic that we also work very closely with.

For years we've featured a special collection of independent princess stories, ones that counter the traditional 'damsel in distress' fairytale narrative. Why did you decide to make your character an independent princess?

Amariah has two daughters and I have three. Our girls are so much like Princess Truly — strong, smart, and fiercely determined. While it was important that Truly looked them on the outside, it was equally as important that she was a character that they and others would want to emulate. We wanted to create a Princess that didn’t need to be rescued. Princess Truly is a problem-solver that saves the day in magical and fun ways.

Princess Truly: I am Brave!Animals play a large role in many of your stories. Is this something that comes from your day to day life or experience?

Amariah and I both love animals. We knew that Truly needed a canine best friend. Sir Noodles is Princess Truly’s trusty pug. His quirky personality injects so much joy into the series. As do all the other animal friends we’ve weaved into the stories. Waffles, the mischievous cat, is featured in a few of the Truly books. His constant shenanigans make the stories silly and exciting.

In recent years, there's been a dramatic increase in the diversity of children's books according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center which tracks such demographic data annually. For example, the number of children's books starring African American characters increased from 5.2% in 2009 to 11.7% in 2019, which is much closer but not quite equal to the overall 12.4% representation of African Americans in the U.S. population. Are you encouraged by what you're seeing in children's publishing?

Absolutely! Every child deserves to see themselves in the books they read and to experience the magic of being part of a great story. I firmly believe that books act as windows and mirrors, they are a great way of learning about ourselves and others. I am thrilled to see so many books being written and illustrated by people of color. Our home library keeps growing and growing.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about your newest early reader, "I Am a Good Friend!", which was released last month and any plans for where you'd like to take Princess Truly next?

I Am a Good Friend is one of my favorite Princess Truly books. I was very intentional about incorporating social skills into this book in a fun and natural way. I want my children, and others, to be kind and caring friends. In the first chapter, Sir Noodles isn’t a very nice friend and Princess Truly teaches him how a good friend should behave. The next two chapters explore how friends work together and show each other kindness. It’s such a beautiful book. Our readers are going to especially love the rainbow clubhouse Truly creates with her friends.

We have another book, I am Brave, releasing in January. Truly and her brother, Ty, go camping. Little readers will be inspired by our courageous Princess in the final chapter. We are currently working on four new Princess Truly books, two more readers and two picture books.

Finally, can you share a few of your favorite picture books starring Mighty Girls?

Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

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