Title: Just Ella
Author: Margaret Peterson Haddix
Publication Date: 2001
Length: 218 pages
Genre: Retelling, Fantasy, YA
I think most everyone has a particular fairy tale they gravitate to- characters that just attach themselves to a part of your heart as a child and refuse to let go. Now, I grew up in the Disney renaissance, watching Ariel and Belle and Jasmine on the big screen, but none of them were my first Disney princess- no, that title belongs to Cinderella, and maybe that’s the reason I have such a soft spot for that story.
Ever After, the version with Drew Barrymore (one of the only movies I could literally watch on repeat), just made me love it all the more. But perhaps there’s something in that movie that’s spoiled me, because reading Just Ella, a retelling of Cinderella, I felt a little… let down.
Maybe that’s just what happens though, when one starts looking beyond the happily ever after- which is exactly what Just Ella does. The story takes place after the ball, after the glass slipper, with Ella (as she’s known here) now taking residence in the castle awaiting her marriage to the prince. All is not well, however, with the soon-to-be princess, as she finds herself in many ways, more trapped by her new surroundings than she was by her stepmother and stepsisters. It isn’t until she tries to do something about the situation, however, that she realizes just how dire things are.
I don’t think that’s the reason though, since ultimately, I love twisted fairy tales. The plot, upon reading the blurb sounded great, and I really was interested in seeing how this take on Cinderella would work out. I happen to have a weakness for Cinderella taking as much agency as she can get. And I can say that the plot remained one that I enjoyed- complete with a small war subplot that, while not so important early on, becomes vital later in the story. Additionally, Ella is indeed a strong character, both in terms of how developed she is, as well as her own willpower, which was fun to see playing out in the situation she finds herself in.
So why did I find myself wishing for more?
The problem lies in the fact that it’s just as trapped by stereotypes and tropes as the original story was. For instance, a main theme of the story is that beauty isn’t everything- that there has to be depth below the surface. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the book constantly undermines that by many of the character descriptions- the shear fact that unpleasant people are so often described in physically unpleasant ways. For instance, a jailer who is morally loathsome and described physically in many of the same ways, or the constant fat-shaming going on with the evil stepsisters (at least this version doesn’t call them ‘ugly’ point-blank). I think the author tried to save herself by making one of Ella’s friends ugly as well, but the attempt falls short.
Additionally, while Ella is interesting- a character that insists on taking charge of her own story- the characters in the castle (save for two) are so two-dimensional. Flatter than the pages they were written on. Was it really not possible to have a story in which Ella is unhappy- and thoroughly trapped wherever she goes- while also surrounded by round characters? Or at least ones with a slight curvature? It was almost as if the author felt that in order for Ella to appear strong enough, she had to be the only character in that place capable of being so.
All in all, I still found the book enjoyable, but it’s definitely not one of my favorite fairytale retellings, and certainly doesn’t rank as high as other versions of Cinderella I’ve seen throughout the years.