by Margaret Peterson Haddix
1999 • 240 pages • Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
As a kid who liked books and organizational supplies (in that specific order), Scholastic Book Fair was like manna from heaven. (And equally unexpected, given my total obliviousness to things like calendars and recurring events as a child.) There’s a post making the rounds on tumblr celebrating Scholastic Book Fairs in a typically bombastic and curse-laden way. It hits very close to home, from the unexpected nature of the fair to catalog browsing to all the little totchkes. The pop-up bookstore clearly works, as this model shows us, and whoever can adapt it for an adult market will… have a traveling independent bookstore on their hands, but at least it’ll be interesting.
I bring up the Scholastic Book Fair in the context of Just Ella because that was where I first encountered Just Ella. (Although not Margaret Peterson Haddix, whose Shadow Children series I devoured.) Already a devoted little speculative fiction fan, I gravitated towards what little speculative fiction there was at the fair. Given the audience, there wasn’t much in the way of the traditional doorsteppers I liked to inhale infrequently as a kid, but there were plenty of fairy tale retellings. Among those fairy tale retellings was Just Ella. I never purchased it at a Scholastic Book Fair. (I think I only ever managed to buy some fun erasers and a book of video game codes.) But the cover stuck with me. It was probably because I conflated it with Ella Enchanted in my head and because the cover image communicated double identities so perfectly that even I couldn’t miss it.
Whatever the reason, it stuck with me to such a point that, a decade later as an adult, I bought a copy at a thrift store just to sate that childhood urge to possess it. That’s quite a lot of build-up for one children’s novel, so I wasn’t too surprised when I was underwhelmed by Just Ella.
Just Ella takes an unusual tact in fairy tale retellings by focusing entirely on Ella’s life after the end of her fairy tale, although it does retell “Cinderella” in miniature about halfway through the novel. Ella Brown, now known as Princess Cythiana Eleanora, has achieved her happy ending, but feels suffocated by the palace lifestyle—from its absurd beauty standards to its awful gender norms. When she comes to realize that she doesn’t love the prince, she tries to back out gracefully—but the court is too petty and small-minded to let her go.
What sets Just Ella apart from other Cinderella retellings is its slightly keener sense of class. (There’s the usual feminist updating of it, but since Cinderella is essentially a fairy tale about a woman wanting a day off to go a party, it’s hardly the most painfully conservative fairy tale out there. I’m looking at you, “Beauty and the Beast.”) Madame Bisset, Ella’s fussy tutor, is constantly harping on the fact that real women do this and not that; Ella seethes that nobody much cared when she was splitting lumber as a young woman for her stepmother and stepsisters. Even the simple act of dipping your bread into your soup is considered a hideous social faux pas capable of sending Bisset into quiet fits of age. The court is very much invested in passing off Ella as a foreign princess, to better disguise her common roots, even as they’re maniacally set on incorporating her beauty into the royal line.
Where it falls slightly short is a large dose of fatshaming—much scorn is heaped on Corimunde and Griselda, Cinderella’s stepsisters, for their large sizes—and Ella’s faint adherence to the Excepto-Girl narrative. While she does later wonder what would have become of the court had education been the fashion, she mostly rolls her eyes at her ladies-in-waiting who are enjoying their work. Despite a brief friendship with Mary, a young servant girl, Ella largely defines herself against other women, and y’all know how I feel about that.
Some of the language used is a little too modern for my tastes, although I can see how a younger audience could enjoy it. Honestly, it’s just a very straightfoward, feminist, and slightly more class-conscious take on Cinderella. That definitely has its place, of course, but I do prefer my fairy tale retellings to highlight the powerful connection between women.
I purchased this book from a thrift store.