Flashback Fridays: I shan’t marry the prince! . . .

You’re  a girl whose been cursed her whole life by a fairy gift that requires you to be obedient.  Anything you are told to do, you must do.  Obviously this means you grow up to be willful, rebellious and determined to break the curse at the first opportunity.

Do you remember:

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (Scholastic, 1997)

Cinderella. It’s been on my mind since the new live-action version of Disney’s animated tale came out.  One of the first fairy tales little girls often know about.  It’s often the case that they’ll know the Disney version: fairy godmother, talking mice, glass slippers . . . you know.  They know that Cindy is a girl whose mother died and whose father married another woman with two daughters.  That Cindy is summarily shunted from her place of privilege to being a servant in her own home and suffering the abuse and nastiness of stepmom and step-sibs.  Then the ball, Cindy’s transformation, the subsequent escape from the ball and the Prince’s search.   Most folks love the rags to riches story of transformation and romance.  I never particularly loved this version of Cinderella.  She’s so bland overall, and her time at the ball and marrying the prince may be nice, but there’s no sense of real excitement to it.  Now of course in the original German tale of Ashenputtel, our heroine must complete several impossible tasks with the help of birds, and begs help from the tree that grew after her mother’s death.  She sneaks out for three nights running, and escapes the attentive prince three times.

I was wandering around a bookstore when this book caught my eye all those years ago.  And I was immediately hooked.  Here was a Cinderella who didn’t fall into the typical rose at all.  She was forced to be obedient against her will–and as such fought it with all that she was.  How scary to be compelled to do whatever anyone commanded you to do.  How frightening at the thought of that knowledge slipping out to someone who might really want to harm you.  How furious you’d be with the fairy who gave this “gift” to you!  Ella is a delightfully different Cinderella protagonist.  She’s vibrant, complicated and willful. She wants her life on her own terms despite her  enchantment.  And rather than a simple tale of domestic servant to princess, Ella’s story is a much longer and more adventurous one.  Full of ogres and centaurs and magic, as well as schooling and wicked stepsisters and princes.

It’s really no wonder this book was awarded the Newbery Honor.  Gail Carson Levine manages to provide a heroine we’ll love to cheer on and identify with despite the fact that she’s not a kick-butt warrior or powerful magic user in the story.  This is still very much the Cinderella fairy-tale in its bones.  Ella will ultimately have to suffer under her stepmother’s thumb, and will make an effort to attend the royal ball. But we have a rich story to build the characters well before we ever get there.  And when we do . . . the best part of this story happens.  I fully admit, I’m including spoilers if you haven’t read this, so be warned, I’m giving away the end here.

Ella’s stepmother finds out she’s been sneaking to the ball, and that she’s won the prince who is very likely to propose.  Only her stepmother knows Ella must do what she’s commanded, and she wants Ella to say yes to the prince.  Because what better power to have than to be able to command the royal princess to do whatever she wants?  Ella suddenly, desperately must do anything but say yes.  She cannot say yes, not and risk the life and happiness of the prince, whom she loves.  Her fierce desire to buck the very commands her stepmother gives her the power to go against the enchantment upon her and say no when the prince proposes to her.  It’s still the highlight of the book for me.  The protagonist’s victory is not in saying yes, but saying no!  (Of course later, she says yes, once the enchantment is broken, but that’s besides the point).  I’ve rarely been so pleased at the ending to a book.

This is one story I’d heartily recommend never seeing the movie to.  The movie is about as far removed from the fantastic middle grade novel as it could be and still claim the same title.  But it was the book that really brought me back to fairy tales, and started me imagining what they could be turned into . . .

Gail Carson Levine has gone on to write other books with fairy tales at their foundations, though I’m not sure any are quite as good as this!  It’s been over 15 years since this book was published and it remains a favorite still.

What are your Cinderella favorites?  Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on March 21, 2015, in Flashback Fridays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Oh man, this book was one of my favorites growing up. I can’t wait until my niece is old enough for it.

    (Ugh, that movie is a travesty.)

  2. I’ve always loved this one; the dilemma of having to say no to the prince is brilliant. Haven’t seen the movie, and I think I won’t bother. My favourite Cinderella movie is Ever After, with Drew Barrymore, because her character (can’t remember what she’s called in the movie) is just as feisty as Ella. Haven’t seen the new movie yet. Is it any good?

    • I love Barrymore’s Danielle. The new movie sounds to be a pretty straight translation of the animated classic into a very child-friendly version live-action. I don’t know. Other than Ever After, my live-action Cinderella preference is for the musical version.

  3. I know this is blasphemy but I just wanted to mention it for the opposite viewpoint. My wife is a wonderful teacher and book lover but never really warmed up to this book. She always thought Ella came off as, well, kind of a wuss. When my daughter was 9 or 10 she was into those Princess Diary movies and I rented the Ella Enchanted movie. My wife was reluctant to watch because she really doesn’t like the book but was pleasantly surprised. Now we all love it. I KNOW, I KNOW. I know it has VERY LITTLE to do with the book but, in this case, that’s why she liked it. Also the Princess Bride jokes. My daughter likes it just because it’s incredibly silly and has fun music.

    Don’t hate us. We like other good books and movies I swear!

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