When John Drumm ’97 M.B.A. reads to his daughter, Gabriela, at bedtime, it’s more than likely a book about a princess. And while his daughter loves these fairytale stories, Drumm noticed a troubling theme in the books, one that he didn’t want his daughter to internalize.
“They were so focused on relying on the prince, appearance, and things like that, so I started ad libbing,” he says. “When the book would say, ‘Cinderella dazzles,’ I would say something like, ‘Cinderella loves science.’”
It worked well, until Gabriela started noticing if dad mixed up the details—she’d remind him that Cinderella loves science, while Belle likes math. So he started writing his edited version on the pages of his daughter’s books, to help keep the story straight.
“That led to me saying, ‘I should write the whole story,’” says Drumm, the author of the Smart Princess series, which reimagines traditional fairy tale and princess stories with empowering messages. “It was a collection of moments, just looking at her and thinking that I don’t want her to think that she needs to wait for a prince or that her options are limited.”
Gabriela, now 6, is an integral part of the editorial process for the Smart Princess series. Drumm writes the stories and then illustrates them himself with a computer animation program, and his daughter gets to weigh in throughout the process and give the final approval.
Smart Cinderella, the first book in the series, came out in March 2018, and the pair are putting the finishing touches on the next two books: Smart Little Mermaid and Smart Sleeping Beauty. In Drumm’s version of the Little Mermaid, the main character wants to protect the ocean, so she needs legs to get on land and convince humans to stop pollution. Smart Sleeping Beauty is creating a scientific antidote to the spell that the evil fairy, Maleficent, put on her. Plans are also in the works for future books featuring Belle from Beauty and the Beast as well as Rapunzel.
The princess stories that Drumm is reimagining are part of the public domain—with their roots in the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales—so no specific company or author has exclusive rights to the stories.
“I stick to the basic elements of the original story, but then, with my additions, show that this princess is taking her destiny into her own hands,” Drumm says. “And, in many cases, the prince is the benefactor of her expertise and brain power.”
In Smart Cinderella, the protagonist still goes to a ball in a beautiful gown, but it isn’t to win the heart of a prince. She wants to show the king and queen her plans to make the kingdom a better place for all who live there. And what about that famous glass slipper? Smart Cinderella still leaves her shoe behind in the rush to get home before midnight—but this time it is on purpose. She writes a math problem on the shoe, and the solution reveals her address, so the prince can find her after the ball. When he does, they get to work improving the kingdom. Cinderella becomes a princess whose brain inside her head is as important as the crown on top of it.
Drumm, whose day job is as a management analyst with the United States Department of Agriculture in Davis, California, works on the books in his spare time. He used to write screenplays, which he says was more time-consuming. With these shorter children’s books, he can make progress on the story or illustrations in smaller chunks, 15 minutes in the morning, or a half hour after bedtime.
He is inspired by the growth mindset philosophy, which has shown that children and adults who believe they can improve intelligence through hard work and effort find more success than those who believe intelligence is fixed.
“I wanted Gabriela to see a princess who was making her own wishes comes true and taking action, through this concept that anyone can learn anything,” he says. “I’m hopeful that the message in there for the people who read the books—both children and the parents who are reading to them—is seeing girls who are exercising their brains, learning, taking on challenges, and not giving up. That’s the way we can all get smarter and move forward in life. The goal of our stories is to show empowering role models to young girls who are drawn to these classic stories.”