Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Target Audience: Middle Grade/YA
Summary: You've heard the fairytale: a glass slipper, Prince Charming, happily ever after...
Welcome to reality: royal genealogy lessons, needlepoint, acting like "a proper lady," and — worst of all — a prince who is not the least bit interesting, and certainly not charming.
As soon-to-be princess Ella deals with her newfound status, she comes to realize she is not "your majesty" material. But breaking off a royal engagement is no easy feat, especially when you're crushing on another boy in the palace.... For Ella to escape, it will take intelligence, determination, and spunk — and no ladylike behavior allowed.
Type of Adaptation: Continuation
The first time I read this book, it was like a lightbulb going on in my head – here was someone putting voice and thought and explanation to all the questions I hadn’t known I’d had about Perrault’s Cinderella. Here was a Cinderella who asked all the questions I wanted her to ask, came to the conclusions I wanted her to come to, and grew in the ways I so want this character to grow.
But obviously, she can’t start there. No, Ella Brown in this book starts out as Princess Cynthiana Eleanora, newly transformed princess by virtue of being the prince’s chosen wife. Yes, we start a few weeks after the ball, with our Cinderella blissfully happy in her palace with her prince – well, mostly. Truth is, she is kinda tired of learning what is “proper” behavior for a princess, the endless lessons in deportment and etiquette and propr behavior, and the only thing that really keeps her going is the evenings she is allowed to spend, chaperoned of course, with Prince Charming.
It’s the fact that she’s allowed to see him so infrequently and that they’re always being watched that make the evenings so awkward and long. Has to be.
As the book progresses, we see Ella start to wonder if all this is really worth winning the prince. But she is so in love with him that she convinces herself it is and pushes on. And then one of her teachers is taken ill, and replaced with his young son, Jed. In Jed, Ella finds something she didn’t know she was missing – a confidant. Jed knows at once that Ella’s cover story – being a princess from a faraway land who got to the ball in secret — isn’t true, using fairly simple reasoning with common knowledge that make me wonder after the intelligence of the people in charge who thought it would be a good story. But then I remember what fairy tale I’m reading, and I’m less surprised.
But Jed alludes to some mysterious story that Ella has heard her maids allude to as well, references that make no sense to her, about magic and fairy godmothers, and it is from Jed that she finally hears the rumor that is flying around the kingdom. And it’s the story we all know, fairy godmothers, transforming pumpkins, glass slippers, magical help, all of it.
And Ella is outraged by it. Because she is appalled at the notion that the wave of a wand has taken the place of the weeks of work and planning she put into getting to the ball. So she tells Jed the true story.
Her father remarried a woman who won his heart by pretending to love his books and scholarly pursuits until they were married, when she revealed her true colors. Then he was killed in the war, caught between sides in an accidental skirmish. Ella became the maid because she had no other choice, and because she couldn’t bear to leave the home she’d shared with her father.
Her stepmother and two stepsisters were awful, but she got her own back in small, subtle ways – or at least, she thought she was. But it wasn’t until she heard about the ball and immediately knew she wouldn’t go that she started to realize just how much they had taken away from her. Because they had put her in a place where she honestly felt she didn’t deserve the chance to go, despite her invitation.
That’s what lights the fire in her. That’s what drives her to get to that ball at any cost. It’s a small thing, but she needs it if she wants to prove that her stepfamily doesn’t own her.
She does all the work herself – she works late into the night altering her mother’s wedding dress to fit. She plots out the course she’ll need to walk to the palace and how long it will take. She overhears the glassblower boasting that he can make anything anyone can name, and takes the opportunity to get shoes the only way she can, by naming glass shoes she can walk in without them breaking. If he wins the bet, she gets to keep the shoes.
No fairy godmother, no magic coach. She does it all herself. She makes it to the ball, and she’s sent in to meet the prince, who is captivated by her beauty. But she can only stay til midnight because she has to get home in time to clean the cellar, and as she runs out, she feels one of the shoes start to break, so she leaves it behind. The prince finds her the next day, and whisks her away. That’s the real story.
What Ella doesn’t know and doesn’t find out until later is that she was chosen purely because of her beauty. The law of the land is that the Charmings must produce beautiful children, and the ball was arranged because none of the noble girls met the requirements. So the plan was to find a non noble girl and teach her to be a princess.
The more Ella learns, the more she starts to realize how trapped she is. She’s not allowed to have any ideas, she’s not allowed to hold opinions, she’s being prepared to be a dressed up doll for the rest of her life. When we add the realization that she doesn’t really love the prince, that in fact, he’s kind of an idiot, not someone with whom she can hold anything resembling a conversation? Well, Ella’s in a bit of a pickle.
She foolishly believes that if she just tells Charming she doesn’t want to marry him, that will be that. But it isn’t. Instead, the declaration gets her thrown into the dungeon, Charming and his advisors determined to break her spirit so she’ll agree to the wedding. But this is Ella, and she’s not going to let that happen. She manages to escape the palace, figuring out in the meantime just what she wants her life to look like.
The end is, obviously, more complicated than that, but that’s the bit that relates most closely to Cinderella, so that’s as much detail as I’m going to go into.
I love this book. It’s a pretty simple idea, sure, but it’s executed really well. Haddix stepped outside her usual genre with this one, and personally, I’m really glad that she did. So, checklist.
Give Cinderella some control of her destiny? Try exclusive control. Ella Brown is kickass. She made her way to the ball entirely on her own, she broke free of the prince, she escaped the life that others would have forced her into time and time again. Absolutely check.
Enhance the role of the prince? Not exactly, but because of how they handled his character, I’m giving the point anyway. Instead of offering an explanation for why he appears so dumb in the original, Haddix just made him legitimately stupid and thoughtless and completely directed by advisors, and for the story she was writing, that works really well. I like that this Prince Charming really wasn’t very. That was a nice touch.
Address the plot transgressions? Let’s see.
Why does Cindy’s dad allow her to be treated so horribly? He doesn’t. He’s dead.
Why doesn’t Cindy fight her servitude or leave if she’s being treated so badly? She stays out of loyalty to her father’s memory.
Why hasn’t the fairy godmother made an appearance before this point, if she’s charged with Cinderella’s happiness and well being? There is no fairy godmother; Ella did it all on her own.
Anybody going to question glass slippers? It’s made very clear that the glass slippers are incredibly uncomfortable and not first choice of footwear, but you do what you gotta do.
Why don’t the slippers disappear along with the rest of the FG’s gifts? Not magical, therefore no issue.
Why does the prince need the shoe to identify Cinderella, and is it really reasonable to assume that it will? Because he’s an idiot. Plain and simple.
Top notch adaptation. Loved this book as a kid, and I still love it now.