Author: Gail Carson Levine (website)
UK Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s
Genre: Children’s books, fantasy, fairy tale retellings
Buy Now: paperback
How can a fairy’s blessing be such a curse?
At her birth, Ella of Frell was given a foolish fairy’s gift–the “gift” of obedience. Ella must obey any order given to her, whether it’s hopping on one foot for a day or chopping off her own head! But strong-willed Ella does not tamely accept her fate. She goes on a quest, encountering ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, fairy godmothers, and handsome princes, determined to break the curse — and live happily ever after.
Ella Enchanted has long been one of my favourite books. I discovered it in high school and read it again and again, and it held up every time. On at least one occasion I finished it and immediately started it again. It inspired one of my earliest fanfic pseudonyms, and I have held it up for years as one of my favourite adaptations of Cinderella. It was one of the books analysed in my undergraduate dissertation – for which I got a first – and I used it again in one of the assignments for my publishing MA, for which I got a distinction. In fact, both of those pieces of work represented my highest marks on the courses they were submitted for. It’s a book which has served me well.
There are a lot of things I love about this book, but first and foremost is Ella herself, and the way she is feisty and stubborn, with a strong will of her own even from the start of the book. The issue with a lot of fairy tales is that, having been compiled or written by men, and forced through their preferred narrative, women often become placid and perfect by their own rather restrictive standards. By modern standards, Cinderella is a bit of a drip. My undergraduate dissertation looked at ways that Cinderella could be updated to become a strong, modern heroine whilst still maintaining the restrictions of the storyline – in Ella Enchanted, this is through the curse. Forced to obey commands – any commands – this book also works well for its target age group to discuss language structure and look particularly at imperatives, something which I covered in my MA assignment which curated a collection of feminist retellings of Cinderella, based around literacy learning goals for each UK Key Stage. (If anyone is interested in seeing this, I might upload it here – I had a lot of fun doing it)
Ella is stubborn and whimsical, somewhat prone to resentment, and entirely incapable of keeping herself clean. Unlike the film of the same name (which, sigh, should have been so much better), Ella’s curse doesn’t immediately grant her the ability to do anything she is ordered to do. She has to work hard and struggle to learn how to do things. She can also resist it, and does so for as long as she can every time to see if the curse will break, or she will find loopholes to circumvent the intention of an order. This means that Ella as a character is preoccupied with language, constantly aware of the structures and forms. Perhaps as a way to reclaim language for herself, she learns a variety of other languages and dialects – making her more vulnerable, because she can understand more orders, but also showing the way her focus is on inward skills rather than outward. Her story is lived internally, she is prone to pondering on topics longer than others and also coming at them from different directions – the lateral thinking instincts she has developed to try and subvert her curse making her seem whimsical and quirky to others. She is clumsy because she sees no value in physical skills, they offer her no protection from her curse so what is the point? She only learns not to be clumsy after she is ordered to do so.
My other favourite part of the story is her relationship with Char (terrible name, but works in context). The book covers a period of about 18 months, maybe even up to 2 years, and you see their friendship grow across it, and turn into love. This isn’t Cinderella meeting the prince at the ball and immediately falling in love with him, the balls are the culmination of their relationship rather than the beginning. There is something gentle and sweet about how they get to know each other, and seeing their relationship develop. It’s also made very clear that marriage to the prince isn’t going to be what saves Ella from her curse or her stepfamily – if anything it’s made clear that it will only make life harder for her. This isn’t a book about a damsel in distress being rescued by a prince, it’s about a girl with intellect and internal strength resisting and rescuing herself.
It’s a short book, and was always a quick read for me – as an adult it takes me an afternoon of concentrated reading to get through it – but it just makes me happy every time. It provides a similar feeling to that of Howl’s Moving Castle – warm, familiar, pleasant. Thematically it’s similar too, a girl who didn’t ask to be involved making the best of the situation she finds herself in, and winning the day on her own merits.
As a book for middle grade readers, it brings in some interesting discussion points. Aside from Ella’s internal life, and the structure of imperative language, it also raises questions about free will and autonomy. At one point Ella is told to be happy to be obedient, so she spends her time seeking out orders to obey until the order is counteracted. It’s a sinister part of the story, she becomes a delighted slave. For middle grade classes it could open a great conversation about what it really means to be consenting, the nature of freedom, and the perils of blind obedience.
I also really adore the UK cover for this book. The colours are beautiful, but it’s the portrait of Ella that really appeals to me. In a bright, cheerful coloured dress which fits her personality, she is unashamedly meeting the reader’s eyes, and there’s a smirk that shows her humour and sense of mischief.
This middle grade book has enough in its content to be used in an undergraduate and a postgraduate assignment. For a short novel, there is so much to be found from mining it, and a wealth of imperfect but wonderful characters to enjoy. I couldn’t recommend it more.
- A delightful, thoughtful retelling of Cinderella, with a heroine who is appealing, strong-minded and spunky.
- The relationships in this book are healthy and balanced as well, this isn’t the book for insta-love, but for grounded feelings and thoughtful affection.
- There is a lot of discussion about autonomy, but also responsibility and the unintended consequences of actions – there is a strong message that nothing can be solved easily, not without making things far worse instead.
Rating: 5/5 – I would particularly recommend this for any girls reading at middle grade level (or even above tbh). A Mighty Girl recommends it as feminist reading material too.