Diana who?

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Today's younger children know very little about the People's Princess, although her story has valuable lessons for them

They called her a fairytale princess. When Lady Diana Spencer married HRH Prince Charles in 1981 she looked like a vision from a Disney movie.

When she died in 1997 she was still a glamorous icon.

It's not surprising that Dorling Kindersley has now published a biography of her for children, which is in the shops this week (Diana, Princess of Wales by Joanne Mattern, pound;4.99). But although her photograph still turns up regularly in the tabloids, many primary children's knowledge of the People's Princess is surprisingly vague.

One headteacher was told by his Year 6s that she had ginger hair (wrong princess); had a son; someone knew the son was Prince William; someone else knew she died in a car crash.

The pupils were far more knowledgeable about Victoria Beckham. Only seven or eight years ago, the first question a journalist visiting a primary school was asked by children was "have you met Princess Di?"

Nevertheless, the experts I spoke to see her as a good primary topic.

Historian Se n Lang says her compassion for the unfortunate, charity work and empathy with children make her a sympathetic adult with whom primary pupils can identify.

Many children can relate to her difficult childhood marked by parental break-up and loneliness.

The "wronged princess" is a standard character in children's fiction and fairy tales, says Mr Lang, honorary secretary of the Historical Association. "They're given to a dragon to be eaten or locked up in towers.

Princess Diana fits in. She's the sort of character that children are always encountering in books, cartoons or the Disney store."

Other historical princesses were similarly oppressed. Before Elizabeth I became Queen she was unlucky in love and locked up by her wicked half-sister. The Diana story connects to both fairy tales and history, "with the advantage of being modern", says Mr Lang.

But children's author Anne Fine points to a big difference. "I can't help noticing that the fairy story always ends as they go up the aisle. I'd take it as an object lesson that that's where the trouble begins," she said. "If there's a fairytale that suits her (Diana), it's Bluebeard's Castle. She walks in thinking her youth and beauty will do it all, but there's a backstory and rules she didn't know about."

In order to fight back, Diana had to make an exhibition of herself, Ms Fine said. "She didn't win." But there's a moral to the story: "Go ahead and marry the frog, but be very careful never to kiss him. It will end in tears."

Some see Diana as a prime example of celebrity culture, the princess famous for being famous. Teachers and writers are worried about children who say their ambition is to be "on telly" rather than "a doctor" or a "fireman".

"If she is to be remembered, let it be for the inspiring things she did, not the 'royal family' nonsense," says Huw Thomas, head of Emmaus primary in Sheffield. "She modelled compassion, standing up for the dignity of Aids sufferers and highlighting the evil of land mines, but as a republican, I think no one should be famous just for being a member of the national soap opera."

Education consultant Bill Laar thinks that for older primary children Diana's story raises moral and spiritual issues to discuss. Did she care about the sick or was she only interested in photo opportunities? He worries that she represents the glorification of self-pity and that it would be easy for schools to take a shallow, sanctimonious view of her, where Prince Charles - whose charity helps many inner-city young people - is maligned to Diana's advantage.

The Dorling Kindersley book does not do that. While showing sympathy for her hardships, and giving credit for her compassion, it is also quite up-front about her publicity battle with Charles, and about newspapers'


"The photograph of Diana reaching out for her sons became one of the most famous ever taken of her. A few seconds later, Prince Charles was photographed hugging and kissing his sons, but those photos never made the papers", it reads. The book, written by an American, Joanne Mattern, is clearly aimed at a transatlantic market.

It is the fourth in a series of DK biographies, with Princess Diana joining a roster of American icons: John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Helen Keller. Does she belong there? Let the children decide.


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