Reading by Ear: Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
read by Eden Riegel


As y’all know, I am a very visual person—that’s why this is a reread feature, not a first read feature. As a kid, cover art could make or break a book for me. What was depicted on the cover was not so much an artist’s interpretation of the work but the law as set down by the powers that be. (I also thought television shows happened when people spontaneously wandered in front of cameras. That might sound adorable, but I also didn’t understand that television shows came on weekly until I was fifteen. Knowledge is power, people.) Obviously, given my utter delight with awful book covers these days, I’ve grown out of this. But I encountered Ella Enchanted while laboring under these beliefs, which means that its original cover is seared into my brain like screen burn-in to such a degree that any other covers make my skin crawl. (I won’t talk about the movie. Until I see it again!)

It always reminded me of the Mona Lisa, which colored how I remembered the novel before picking it back up again. In my hazy memory, it was a small and elegant piece about a girl overcoming a curse—a little more deliberately Renaissance, a little less generic fantasy. And I completely forgot it was a retelling of Cinderella. Ella Enchanted follows young Ella of Frell, who, as a baby, was given a “gift” by the fairy Lucinda: obedience. If someone gives Ella a direct order, she must comply. But obedience has not made Ella docile. When her protective mother dies, her curse becomes more of a liability than ever in the hands of her callous, greedy father. Determined to get rid of her curse for both herself and the good of country (as she’s friends with Prince Charmont), Ella sets off on a quest that takes her through all of her native Kyrria.

There’s something very comfortable about feminist (or, if not explicitly feminist, feminist-minded) retellings of fairy tales. I can talk about current feminist issues with some people until I am blue in the face and not get anywhere, but pretty much everybody can agree that “Sleeping Beauty” is not a tale of female empowerment. Plus, providing an alternative to traditional renditions of fairy tales gives girls a broader variety of role models. You do have to be careful, of course, when providing more diverse role models that you don’t provide a binary of “GOOD STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER” versus “BAD GIRLY PRINCESS”—in your zeal, you don’t want to insult and erase someone’s gender presentation and identity. The idea is to expand representation, not shift its narrow focus. All the ladies, all the time, to quote my colleagues at ladybusiness. Ella Enchanted, by making Ella such a well-rounded character, mostly avoids this, but it still takes some unnecessarily mean swipes. The dreaded stepfamily—Dame Olga and her daughters, Hattie and Olive—are mocked for their weight and for wearing wigs. The focus is more on their selfishness, greed, and abuse of Ella, but I could have done without a fat joke or two.

As I mentioned in my review of Redwall, I inevitably must tear apart the worldbuilding of novels I read as a child, like a full-grown woman smashing a toddler’s chair to pieces. It is simply a fact. Ella Enchanted actually fares a little better, given the always forgiving setting of “generic Europe-based fantasy”, but there’s still the weird horrors that are centaurs in this world. The “exotic peoples” of Ella’s world include elves, fairies, gnomes, giants, and ogres, but not centaurs, who are instead prime candidates for pets. Ella even gets a pet centaur. It’s a small detail that’s not important to the plot, but I found myself often pausing while I walked the dog to contemplate what a centaur with the intelligence of a dog would look like. How can something that’s half-human look like a pet? Is this anything like the fact that the only difference between Goofy and Pluto is that Goofy wears pants and talks? I began imagining all kinds of nightmare scenarios, which is probably more a reflection on me than on the book.

I was having a little trouble engaging with the text because of the audiobook narrator. I was shocked to look up Eden Riegel and find out that she was twenty-three when she recorded Ella Enchanted. I was actually going to ask if it was okay to have a child narrate an audiobook if the narrator is the same age, but that’s out the window now. The voice she selects for Ella is too young for a fourteen-year-old who has a birthday during the novel, making her sound like a middle-schooler instead of a high schooler. (And the other characters sound like Ella imitating them squeakily, not like other people.) It makes all the adorable banter between Ella and Charmont come across as children goofing off, instead of adolescents laughing at stupid jokes because they, like, like each other. It makes the humor and the chemistry really sag. Better, I think, to encounter this as a print book than an audiobook.

Bottom line: Ella Enchanted is a comfortable and well thought out retelling of Cinderella, but the audiobook narrator uses a voice far too young for our protagonist. Find the book, avoid the audiobook.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

5 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Ella Enchanted

  1. Yay, one of my favorite books! And yeah, I can’t deal with the other covers. The original is so perfect! It fits the story, the tone of the book, everything!

    Glad I’m not the only one who was freaked out by the centaurs. Ew.

  2. I remember this audiobook! The voice drove me crazy, and I listened to maybe two chapters and then returned it. But the book, I really love the book. I can’t put my finger on exactly why–the problems you mention are definitely present, and the fairy tale’s sort of generic–but I do love it, and I have reread it dozens of times.

    • It’s such a weird voice. At the Denver Publishing Institute, one of my fellow students said that children traditionally read “up”; i.e., they read about kids older than they are, because that’s what they’re interested in. Making Ella sound younger doesn’t do anything to entice the audience.

      I think Ella Enchanted was one of the only good retellings on the block for a good long while, which gives it a stature other fairy tale retellings don’t have.

  3. Pingback: Page to Screen: Ella Enchanted (2004) | The Literary Omnivore

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