In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Emma on Ella

Dear Annie,

Last week I received an e-mail from an old friend, a recent Swarthmore graduate who's been reading our blog. Emma has always cared deeply about books.  Her family gave our girls both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Golden Compass before we had heard of either one.  And I remember Lizzie, our Tolkien fan, calling Emma, also a Tolkien fan, after the first Lord of the Rings movie came out to ask Emma's opinion of it before venturing to the movie herself.

After reading some of our princess discussion, Emma wanted to make sure we mention
Ella Enchanted
, by Gail Carson Levine.  It's a middle-grade novel which can be read to younger kids, and still (see below) savored by older ones.  Levine has said that she wrote it because she was always perplexed by what a wimp Cinderella was, caving to the obnoxious whims of step-family.  So Levine added a fairy at her christening, whose curse was that Ella would have to obey any order phrased as a direct command.

Here's what Emma wrote:

Ella Enchanted is a retelling of Cinderella, set in a beautifully described magical world called Frell. Ella is in some ways our typical Cinderella-- with a dead mother, horrid stepsisters, and a pair of glass slippers-- but she also has an impressively complete backstory and personality. Instead of the traditional virtues of compassion, kindness, and beauty (those are mostly foisted on her prince), she's given a gift for languages, a sense of humor, and an independent streak a mile wide.

It is probably my favorite book that I've read since leaving picture books-- better than Civil War histories or Walter Benjamin or even Neil Gaiman. I can't speak to why it has such a strong hold on my heart, but there it is. In fact it's sitting next to me in bed now, because I've been rereading it the past couple of days. Ella is very sure of herself and of what she wants and doesn't want. She's a strong woman without giving up any of the "woman" part; I never feel that when she's mocking the things she learns in finishing school she's mocking anything about femininity or being a woman. The magic of this book is summed up for me by what Ella says when she finally breaks her curse: "I was made anew. Ella. Just Ella. Not Ella, the slave. Not a scullery maid. Not Lela. Not Eleanor. Ella. Myself unto myself. One. Me." That insistence on being herself on her own terms is what I think makes her such a great hero and character.

Whew! I'm making myself tear up here. Anyway: I think this book appeals to princess-story-loving girls while avoiding a lot of the typical downfalls of those kinds of stories-- I am a princess-story-loving girl, so I should know.
Many thanks to Emma for this.

And a Happy Thanksgiving to all.



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