If you were a child
growing up in the '90s, right smack between the Disney princess craze and the Disney princess backlash, and you ever expressed even the mildest interest in history, politics, or dresses, then chances are high that you read at least one of the Royal Diaries. They were prestigious little books with gilded page-edges and serious-looking portraits on the front. Each one told the story of a different historical princess or queen in her own words (or rather, the words of an American author pretending to be a French monarch). And they were the best. So if you're looking for a trip down memory lane that has a bit more of an adult, historically informed edge to it, check out these grown up books to read if you loved the Royal Diaries.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that you
shouldn't reread the Royal Diaries themselves, or that the books were too childish (remember when Cleopatra was served her own sister's head on a platter?). But a first-person "diary" account for kids can only fit in so many details. Here you'll find factual accounts that delve into every last scandal, as well as inventive historical fictions based on the actual rulers who shaped the modern world:
'Cleopatra's Shadows' by Emily Holleman
The young princess Arsinoe has been abandoned by her beloved sister, Cleopatra, and their irresponsible father, the former pharaoh of Egypt. Her
other sister, Berenice, has just taken the throne, leaving Arsinoe alone in a palace full of liars and schemes. This historical novel explores the bloodthirsty court that gave rise to the Cleopatra we all know and love, as well as shedding some much deserved light on Cleopatra's little sister Arsinoe, a brave and quick-witted princess in her own right. Click here to buy.
'The White Queen' by Philippa Gregory
The White Queen is the dark and scandalous true story tale of England's second favorite Tudor queen named Elizabeth: Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen. The country has been thrown into chaos by the War of the Roses, and Elizabeth sees an opportunity for herself. She marries the boy king in secret, securing her spot in the English monarchy—but her quest for love and power grows a tad more complicated when her two young sons wind up in the Tower of London. Click here to buy.
'The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra' by Helen Rappaport
We all know that the Romanov sisters were brutally murdered in a basement at the end of their father's reign (except for Anastasia, of course, who survived to star in an animated film with a talking bat). But what were their lives like
before that fateful basement? The Romanov Sisters is a fascinating biography of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov, chronicling their joys and sorrows in the final days of Imperial Russia. And yes, there are some actual diary pages included. Click here to buy.
'Nzinga African Warrior Queen' by Moses L. Howard
Queen Nzinga of modern day Angola spent forty years fighting against Portuguese colonizers for the freedom of her people. She was a born diplomat, a savvy politician, and a ferocious military leader. Her life has been widely romanticized (the Marquis de Sade insisted that she kept a large harem of husbands), but
Nzinga African Warrior Queen delivers a thrilling narrative of her life while sticking to the historical facts of this literal warrior queen. Click here to buy.
'Princess Ka'iulani: Hope of a Nation, Heart of a People' by Sharon Linnea
Princess Ka'iulani was the crown princess of Hawaii, and a powerful advocate for Hawaiian independence. At just 17, she found herself far from home, on a pier in New York City, speaking on behalf of her kingdom before the whole of the United States.
Princess Ka'iulani tells the remarkable, heartbreaking story of her life, and her tireless determination to save her people from American colonizers. Click here to buy.
'Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China' by Jung Chang
At 16, Cixi was selected to be one of the emperor's many concubines. She didn't squander the opportunity: the second the emperor died and her five-year-old son took the throne, Cixi went about launching a palace coup and ruled China herself for several decades. She's responsible for jumpstarting China's industrial revolution, advancing the struggle for women's liberation, introducing parliamentary elections, and just generally being a terrifying badass queen.
Click here to buy.
'The Sisters of Versailles' by Sally Christie
Young King Louis XV of France is seven years married and already bored of his wife. Enter the five Nesle sisters, each with her own strategy to land a coveted spot as mistress to the king. Out of Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four become lovers of King Louis (sorry, Hortense) in this lavish tale of tactical romance and historical intrigue.
Click here to buy.
'Maharanis: The Extraordinary Tale of Four Indian Queens and Their Journey from Purdah to Parliament' by Lucy Moore
Maharanis follows four royal women of India through four generations, from the tumultuous end of the British Raj to India's emergence as the world's largest democracy. There's Sunity Devi, a friend to Queen Victoria and advocate for girls' education; Chimnabai, who fought to abolish child marriage; Indira, who shocked the royal family by breaking her engagement; and the passionate and fashionable Ayesha. Each did her part to create modern India, as chronicled in this utterly engrossing biography. Click here to buy.
'Victoria' by Daisy Goodwin
Speaking of the devastating British colonization of India, Queen Victoria spent a ridiculously long time ruling the British Empire and presiding over the uptight citizens of Victorian England. Before she was
that Victoria, though, she was a sheltered young princess of 18 about to be crowned ruler of one of the most powerful nations on Earth (and about to get her own room for the first time ever). Click here to buy.
'The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire' by Jack Weatherford
Genghis Khan did a lot of conquering, sure, but it was his daughters who transformed his conquests into the largest empire the world has ever known. They fostered education and built a vast economic system from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. They shocked Europe and the Islamic world. And, eventually, they turned against each other. This is the little-known history of the women who ruled and defended the Mongol Empire (especially Queen Mandhuhai, who had eight kids while fighting the Ming Dynasty of China).
Click here to buy.
'The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt' by Kara Cooney
Let's not forget that Cleopatra wasn't the only female pharaoh. Hatshepsut was a 20-year-old cross-dresser who maneuvered her way onto the throne and then ruled for a spectacular 22 years. She was responsible for building a number of Egypt's marvels, and leading her kingdom into one of its most prolific periods of history.
Click here to buy.