A colorful, illustrated portrait of Meg Cabot. She's smiling wide, with shoulder-length wavy brown hair. She's wearing black, rectangular glasses; has a red and gold crown on her head with blue jewels; and an ermine draped over her shoulders. Her face is framed by a mustard yellow sun-shape, and behind that, bright panels of blue, pink, and red.
Abby Giuseppe

Thank Goodness for Meg Cabot

Over 20 years after the first “Princess Diaries,” the writer is still sticking up for romance.

In the opening scene of 1999’s cinematic classic 10 Things I Hate About You, guidance counselor Ms. Perky (Allison Janney) sits pert in her cardigan and pearls, tip-tapping away at her computer. “I’ll be right with you,” she tells a student, turning back to her PowerPC…on which she is crafting a magnum opus of a romance novel. In the film, Ms. Perky’s novel is played for laughs—a running joke, with key words like “pulsating” and “bratwurst” used to portray the luridity of her side hustle. But around that same time, in real life, an administrator at a New York University dormitory was living out a similar scene: tucked away in her office, tapping away at romance novels in between wrangling angsty students. Only this time, she was the main character. 

Her name was Meg Cabot. 

“It was exactly like that,” Cabot told The Conversationalist shortly before Thanksgiving. Over Zoom from her longtime home in Key West, Florida, she talked a mile a minute, the charming, real-life embodiment of the chatty early-aughts heroine she’s most known for: The Princess Diaries’ Mia Thermopolis. “All the kids in the dorm knew that was exactly what I was doing. I’d be on my computer when they would come in and they’d be like, ‘I don’t want to interrupt you, but there’s a fire.'” 

Cabot would put out the fires, of course. It was from that desk, though, in her tiny corner of NYU, that she’d write her first “ten or eleven” novels. At the age of 31, she’d begin publishing steamy, “pulsating” adult historical romance, before breaking into the public consciousness in 2000 with the back-to-back publication of her first young adult novels, The Princess Diaries and The Mediator: Shadowland. The rest is history. Following Disney’s smash hit movie adaptation of The Princess Diaries, Cabot’s name fast became synonymous with the fun, romantic “chick lit” of the time. You an Anne Hathaway fan? You also have Meg Cabot to thank for her breakthrough role.

More than twenty years (and over 80 published novels) later, and with another Princess Diaries book and movie on the way, Cabot remains a powerhouse. That’s not just because she’s more prolific than Stephen King, who’s published a comparatively paltry 65 novels in more than twice the amount of time. And it’s not just because The Princess Diaries still makes headlines. It’s because she created something that made waves for an entire generation. For those who came of age during the early 2000s, Cabot helped redefine what books for girls and women could look like: She wrote them funny, messy—and so horny they’re still getting soft-banned all over the country. 

To get there, though, Cabot had to push past the judgment that’s long hovered like a cloud over women’s literature. At Indiana University in the 1980s, while working towards her degree in studio art, Cabot started taking creative writing classes, where professors and peers alike passed judgment on the topics she was interested in writing about. “People really looked down on romance,” Cabot said. “I was writing commercial genre fiction and [my classmates] were writing literary fiction. Theirs had a lot of suicide and mine had lots of going to the mall and meeting boys.” Now, she jokes that those who once mocked her choice of genre were just jealous: The kind of books she’d been working on forever turned out to be lucrative. But at the time, their response was frustrating.

The reaction, though, was nothing new. For as long as there’s been literature marketed towards women, there’ve been people looking down on it. Because of this, Cabot kept her work to herself for years. Her first published novel, a steamy adult romance called Where Roses Grow Wild, came out in 1998 under a pen name: Patricia Cabot. She’d go on to write seven more under the same name. “I was worried about the smut factor and my grandma finding out,” she remembers. From the start, Cabot proved expert in writing women and girls who were not just strong, but varied and complex; which was precisely what drew her to the genre in the first place. “Romance novels have really strong female characters, and that was hard to find [for a long time],” she said. But her entry into life as a romance author proved revelatory. Unlike those college classmates, romance readers and writers welcomed her with open arms. “It was really fun, such a supportive community,” Cabot said. “That was where I belonged.”  

Her grandmother did eventually find out about her secret second career, too, but the smut didn’t bother her. “She loved it,” Cabot recalled. 

For a long while, Cabot kept her day job at NYU. It was stable, and offered health insurance. She made great friends, many of whom she’s still tight with to this day. Then, right as the century turned, The Princess Diaries changed everything: When Disney came knocking, Cabot knew it was her chance to jump full-time into life as an author. She took it.

“There still weren’t a whole lot of funny books for girls,” Cabot said about the late ’90s, when she first started writing for teens. She name-checked exceptions, like Judy Blume, and Cabot’s contemporary Louise Rennison, whose hilarious Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging came out in ’99. But at the time, she says that most of the genre “was very message-y”: “There really wasn’t this idea that YA could just be for entertainment and be fun.” Cabot saw an opportunity to help shift that. Her characters weren’t without morality: Cabot’s books contained messages, in that they had characters with a point of view. At the same time, though, those characters got to be awkward, swoony, and feminist as fuck, too. Her characters felt real. 

Cabot’s adult work is well worth exploring—sharp, comedic, with a deep love of banter—but it’s her first works in YA where she really found her stride. It’s also where she’s had the most impact, acting as millions of millennial readers’ introduction to romantic comedy, many of them through Mia Thermopolis. In The Princess Diaries series, Mia is a teen outcast who finds out she’s heir to the throne of a small country called Genovia. The character went mainstream in 2001, when the Disney adaptation introduced the world to Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of her as a dorky and sweet girl just trying to survive high school. But while the movie version of the character is rightfully beloved, it’s worth remembering how Cabot originally crafted her. In the books, Mia is a sunny bleeding heart, who only agrees to undergo “princess lessons” after the monarchal side of her family agrees to donate $36,500 a year to Greenpeace. The Mia of the books is progressive, a kid with a massive political streak, whose big desire—aside from kissing Michael Moscovitz—is how badly she wants to help push the world into a better place. 

But while Mia had staunch political values, The Princess Diaries was never about them. Mia was just a girl flailing her way into adulthood. Just like her readers, she was deeply insecure. She was also chaotic, and yearny, and horny as hell—a wonderful throughline for many of Cabot’s most memorable characters. There’s ballsy psychic Jessica Mastriani, who works with hot, motorcycle-riding bad boy Rob to track down missing children in 1-800-WHERE-R-U. In Cabot’s popular The Mediator series, we’re introduced to tough, leather-clad Suze Simon as she solves murders while flirting with the 19th Century ghost haunting her bedroom. There’s also Katie Ellison in Pants On Fire, so-titled because its heroine 1) can’t stop lying, and 2) can’t stop cheating on her boyfriend to make out with new boys. 

Cabot’s most sexually liberated YA novel, though, is Ready Or Not, the sequel to All-American Girl, in which a teen girl named Sam Madison saves the president from an attempted assassination. She falls for the president’s son, and in the sequel, they decide to have sex. The book follows Sam on her path to readiness—including securing contraceptives and learning to masturbate with the bathtub faucet. 

“Still to this day, All-American Girl and Ready Or Not are my most-banned books, because they deal with sex very frankly,” Cabot said. “It’s surprising to me, because my mom was a Planned Parenthood volunteer. In my house it was very open.” Sexuality, after all, is part of every coming of age in one way or another. And who in this world is juggling those thoughts more than a teenager? 

Of course, the now-56-year-old wasn’t the first in YA to portray horny teen girls. “If you read Judy Blume, you know that’s been going on for years and years,” she said. But Judy Blume’s books also weren’t adapted into blockbuster movies by Disney, and part of the backlash for Cabot may have come from how ubiquitous she was for romance-loving teens of the early 2000s. The Princess Diaries adaptation became an instant classic, funneling an eager audience towards her books. 

“People started buying the books expecting them to be G-rated like the movie,” Cabot recalls. They were not—and some parents didn’t love that the book version of The Princess Diaries’ first scene involved kissing. 

Still, for plenty of young girls, Cabot’s work was (and continues to be) vital and illuminating. Her novels are chatty and personable, her characters flawed, and her stories casually sex-positive. Even when her young characters weren’t actually having sex, the acknowledgement of desire affirmed something bigger, something deep inside. A feeling that her readers, like her characters, were still exploring. And if those readers were so inclined, Cabot’s adult novels were right there, full of the “smut” she once feared would disappoint her grandmother—but also so much more. 

Romance is often written off as empty-headed porn for women, a stereotype Cabot wholeheartedly rejects: What the form’s critics ignore is everything that surrounds the lust. Romance is about yearning, sure. About sex. Cabot’s books, though, are also about dynamic friendships. About history—she’s written plenty of historical fiction—and mystery. About the way women and girls are seen by their society, and the effects that has on them. Ultimately, all of Cabot’s novels are also about the inner lives of interesting young women navigating challenging times in their lives. 

This is something Cabot knows intimately. Though her family home growing up was frank about sex, in other aspects, her childhood was “very dark.” Her father was an alcoholic, and to escape, she buried herself in books. “There were many times I felt there was no hope,” Cabot recalled. “Romance was always where I could turn to. Those books, where there was an empowered woman who got what she wanted in the end, guaranteed.”

“That’s what pulled me out of despair,” she continued. “Knowing I can put that out there for someone else is the greatest thing.” To Cabot, writing is the skill she has that she can share with people. “I’m not going to be a brain surgeon,” she joked. 

But even if her books were just a horny escape, wouldn’t that be OK, too? “It’s just misogyny,” Cabot exclaimed when asked about naysayers of her genre. “People look down on anything that women like, and anything involving women.” 

For her younger readers, Cabot’s work was an education—not just in sex, but in how rewarding it can be for readers when an author is skilled at seamlessly blending genre. Wrapped in a shiny “chick lit” package—books more recently known as “beach reads” because, well, the former had been so dragged through the sexist mud that it needed a rebrand—Cabot’s work is multi-faceted and wide-ranging. She’s written epistolary novels, murder mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, middle-grade, YA, adult, historical fiction, and more. Fittingly, she has no patience for those who try to one-dimensionalize her corner of women’s fiction. She often hears from readers afraid to be seen reading “chick lit” in the office because coworkers make fun of them. “I tell them to tell their coworkers to go fuck themselves,” Cabot said. “Those people have clearly never read it.”

These days, Cabot and fellow children’s and young adult author Rachel Vail challenge each other to write five pages a day. The stakes of failure keep them going: If they don’t hit their page count, they’re forced to donate $5 to Donald Trump. “It’s very motivating,” Cabot said. Like her most famous character, Cabot is disturbed by the current state of the world. She’s even contemplating leaving Key West, where she’s resided with her husband and cats for almost twenty years. She loves her town, and often blogs about her life there, but has been turned off by Florida’s ongoing political turmoil. 

It’s there, too, that Cabot’s born witness to a new wave of challenges levied against authors and readers alike: angry right-wing parents for whom the problems don’t stop at french kissing. “It’s a very small percentage of the population, but they’re very loud,” she said. It’s a nation-wide issue: The New York Times reported in January that parents hell-bent on banning books have become “more organized, well-funded” and “effective” in recent years. The Guardian characterized the efforts as “moral militancy.” 

“They don’t want any reference to sex, race, gender fluidity…,” Cabot said of recent attempts to pull books from the library system. “It might challenge the very Christian, neofascist way they want to raise their children.”

Pushback to the kind of books that have defined her career hasn’t stopped Cabot in the slightest, though. Most recently, Cabot has published the Little Bridge Island series, an adult series set in her community of Key West, and next up is a new, COVID-set Princess Diaries book, as well as a lot more children’s and middle-grade fiction. (Proceeds for The Quarantine Princess Diaries will go to VOW For Girls, a charity aimed at ending child marriage.) 

And thank goodness for Meg Cabot. Her naysayers—whether politically lecherous or simply snobby—have no real way to stop the flow of stories from Cabot’s brain to readers’ hands. Cabot doesn’t take her role lightly. A cornerstone of young adult fiction, she’s no stranger to the pressures of shaping young minds. It’s impossible to calculate, in 2023, just how many authors coming up today have been influenced by her work. It’s even more impossible to calculate how many women and girls have become voracious writers and readers as a result of her work. And twenty-five years on from her debut novel, both Cabot and her books remain chatty and cheerful, effervescent and gutsy—an escape from a hellish world, just as she intended. Given all that’s happened in the interim, that’s certainly a crowning achievement.