Margaret Peterson Haddix,
Just Ella
(Simon & Schuster, 1999;
Aladdin, 2001)

So many fairytales end with a simple "happily ever after" ... but is it ever really so simple?

Just Ella, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, turns the Cinderella story on its ear by exploring the young girl's motivations and examining gender roles that apply, honestly, more to modern times than they did in the medieval setting of the book. Still, young readers (and adults, too!) will enjoy this fractured version, which starts with Ella enduring lessons in etiquette, needlepoint and other princessly duties in the castle of her betrothed, Prince Charming. But, while the prince is, of course, charming and quite handsome to boot, Ella begins to wonder if that's a suitable foundation for lifelong romance. What little time she spends with her husband-to-be proves him to be dull as toast, and almost as smart.

But what options does she have? Very few, given the role of women -- even princesses in training -- in her society. But Ella is clever and very, very stubborn when she makes up her mind. Unfortunately, Ella's instructors are very, very intimidating -- and resourceful, too.

Of note, this book gives us a Cinderella who does not rely on fairy godmothers, talking mice or convertible pumpkins to make her way to and from the prince's ball. Determined to go despite the scorn of the "step-evils" who plague her life, Ella uses the resources at hand and no small amount of ingenuity to get herself where she wants to be (as explained in a brief but entertaining flashback, in which we learn that glass slippers hurt). The whirlwind romance that followed was unexpected, and she allows herself to be swept away by the sheer storybook fantasy of it all. Fortunately for Ella, it takes more than fine clothes and frippery to keep her contented for long.

Her story could easily be touted as a lesson in gender equality and free will among women. Or it can be appreciated simply as a new take on an old tale. Either way, Just Ella can be enjoyed by a broad audience -- although evil stepmothers might want to read something slightly less upsetting.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 26 June 2004

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