Margaret Peterson Haddix, Just Ella (Aladdin Paperbacks, 2001)

Just Ella is yet another in the popular "new twist on an old fairytale" genre, and I must say that it is one of the most original and subversive versions of Cinderella that I've had the pleasure of reading. When we meet Ella (nicknamed "Cinders-Ella" by her nasty stepmother and stepsisters, Lucille, Corimunde, and Griselda) she has already attended the ball, left behind her glass slipper, and been found and whisked away to the palace by the handsome Prince Charming.

Though fairly educated for a commoner, being the daughter of a well-to-do merchant with a love of rare books, it seems that Ella (er, Princess Cynthiana Eleanora, that is) has much to learn about life as a princess.  So much, in fact, that her days are now filled with constant lessons in decorum, palace protocol, dancing, needlework, and other dull nonsense.  She has discovered that the world of power and privilege is not only excruciatingly boring, but incredibly, almost abusively oppressive to women. She suffers this situation only for love of her betrothed, Prince Charming.

When she realizes that Charming is selfish, boring, and stupid, and even worse, that she was only chosen as his bride because she is extraordinarily beautiful and the royal family wishes to pass on pretty genes, Ella tries to end her engagement. This is a huge mistake, as nobody, least of all a commoner, says "no" to royalty. Ella quickly finds herself confined to the castle dungeons, guarded by a convicted rapist and denied food until she acquiesces and agrees to marry the Prince.

Ella is one heck of a fairytale heroine. Rather than a sweet bewildered child who meekly submits to her stepmother's abuse, Ella is feisty and rebellious and regularly fights back. There is no fairy godmother here, only a young woman who stands up for herself and rearranges a bad situation to her advantage. Of course, the rumors about a fairy godmother are impossible to squelch; for as her tutor and friend Jed points out "People would rather believe in fairy godmothers and...and...well, divine intervention, if you will--than to think that you took charge of your own destiny." But that is exactly what Ella does here, taking in her mother's old wedding dress and sneaking out to the ball against Lucille's orders. She takes charge of herself again when she refuses to marry Charming, and yet again when she must find a way to escape from the dungeons.

Yes, that's right, though she has a new love interest to replace the pathetic Prince, she rescues herself. Didn't I say this book was subversive? Imagine, a fairytale princess of incomparable beauty and grace, who places no value on her looks and relies on her brains and courage. Unthinkable. A fairytale heroine who is "good" because she is generous and caring, not merely because she is mild and obedient.  Subversive indeed.

This is not to say that Just Ella is flawless. While the message is more than worthy, Haddix is often just a touch heavy handed in her presentation for my taste. And the writing is uneven, so much so that I found in places it actually distracted me from the tale itself. Haddix cannot seem to settle upon a writing style. Just Ella takes place in a traditional medieval setting, and some characters speak in the flowery, courtly manner that one might expect. At the same time, Ella herself uses such modern phrases as "I'd like to hunt Mary up", "You have got to be kidding", and "What if I'd just had an off night?". Ella's voice in the narration resembles that of a modern college student, rather than the 15-year-old she is supposed to be. The discrepancy between the medieval setting and the contemporary language is jarring and at times intrusive.

Character development is limited mostly to Ella and her friend Jed. The supporting characters, such as the servant girl Mary, rarely shine through as real people. Descriptive detail is fairly well done, except of course when the aforementioned contemporary language distracts.

Because this is a young adult novel it would be tempting to dismiss the shortcomings due to the importance of the message, and leave it at that.  While I won't do that, I will say that this book is worth reading despite the less than stellar writing. I wish I'd had an Ella to look up to when I was a young girl reading fairytales. If I had a daughter, I would buy Just Ella for her and encourage her to embrace the example of this vibrant and intelligent character.

[Maria Nutick]