Time flies, folks. I recently saw the reminder that Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is 25 years old in 2022. I remember reading this book when it was first released and crossing my fingers that it would win the Newbery Medal that year. I was very disappointed when it only got the Newbery Honor. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse won that year. It's a fine book but so is Ella Enchanted which also happens to be a book that kids enjoy reading, too. Both are "issues" books, but one hides it much better from the casual reader. But the politics of children's literature is really beyond my thought capacity today, so let's move on to some squeeing about a favorite book that impacted me personally.
To put it all in better context, I was headed to grad school for Library and Information Science in 1997 with an emphasis on children's and YA librarianship. I also started dating my husband, John, that year and married him in 1998. He was a graphic designer working with online sites. Both of those experiences, along with reading books like Ella Enchanted, converged into my creation of SurLaLune Fairy Tales in 1998. I wanted to build a site and understand what John did a little better by sharing my love and knowledge of fairy tales and folklore.
There were very few versions of Cinderella that I enjoyed prior to Ella Enchanted's publication. I am a fan of The Slipper and the Rose, primarily because I like the music (best work of the Sherman Brothers after Mary Poppins) and the continuation of the story after the ball and slipper fitting. It always made sense to me. And who doesn't love Annette Crosbie's take on the Fairy Godmother? Pretty much all other Cinderella stories left me cold up until the time I read Ella Enchanted. I always preferred Beauty and the Beast and other fairy tales. But Ella Enchanted made me see Cinderella with new eyes. I loved the curse of obedience and Ella's methods of transgression. It resonated with me and still does 25 years later.
Although Bluebeard was the first tale to appear on SurLaLune, Cinderella came soon after thanks in part to Ella Enchanted. Levine had managed to make it fun for me to explore other iterations of Cinderella. After all, I didn't know then nearly what I know now about the tale. Cinderella has so many fascinating variations of the traditional tale, never mind the modern interpretations, that I find it endlessly interesting now. It was one of my favorite tales to edit into a collection of variations, too: Cinderella Tales from Around the World.
A few years after it was published, I would recommend Ella Enchanted to reader after reader while I worked as a librarian in Burbank, CA. They nearly always returned, begging for "More like this one, please!" That enthusiasm for reading always thrilled me. It still does. So congrats to Levine and her publishing team for a great book that still resonates 25 years later.
I was inspired to write this after reading the article below, to give full credit to my inspiration today:
Here's an excerpt:
Many people struggle to say no—that’s especially the case for many women, because society trains them to be agreeable and self-sacrificing. For Ella, saying no is a literal impossibility thanks to her curse. She attends finishing school under her father’s orders. Hattie and Olive—two nasty bullies in her social circle—take her money and her mother’s pearl necklace. Hattie even deprives Ella of food for days by commanding her not to eat. Even worse, Hattie demands that Ella put an end to her only real friendship. Later on, her stepmother orders her to become a scullery maid and wash the floors. And Ella does, scrubbing until her knuckles bleed.
One reason this novel speaks so deeply to young readers is because it captures a hallmark of being a teenager: the tug-of-war between obedience and rebellion. Really, that desire to be transgressive exists throughout our lives, to some degree. We want the freedom to break the rules, yet we feel compelled to follow them because the consequences for doing otherwise are too great. We could be left unloved, penniless, and disowned if we fail to follow certain scripts we’ve been given. I think of kids with musical or artistic ambitions who become lawyers instead because their parents demand it, or because conventional wisdom says they’re destined for failure.
I’m cursed with obedience as well. When a stranger asks me for a favor—to edit something, maybe, or give advice—I have a hard time ignoring that request. But this realization has helped me recognize how others are cursed with obedience, too, and how easy it is to accidentally take advantage of their willingness to give.
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