The late '90s and early '00s were a magical time for the voracious young reader. Harry Potter! American Girls! Being scared of those crazy Animorph covers! But if we're talking re-imagining of fairy tales, then one book reigned supreme: Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted. I'm pretty sure I read it twice in a row as a kid, and I even suffered through the sub-par movie adaptation with a criminally misused Anne Hathaway. But why did we adore Levine's take on the Cinderella story so very much? Here are seven reasons we loved Ella Enchanted as kids.
The twisted-fairy tale trend has been around for years now, but when Ella Enchanted first came out it was still a bit of a novelty. This was before Disney started remaking all their cartoons are live action movies (I mean, I'm excited for the Emma Watson Beauty and the Beast, but how many times are they trying make us pay for the same movie?). This was back when a new take on Cinderella felt original, even daring. And we, the kids who grew up on a steady diet of princess nonsense, were here for it. So just in case you forgot about Ella of Frell, here are a few reasons why she was the best princess of our childhoods:
1. It was an original take on Cinderella
Our childhoods were filled with Cinderellas. There was the Disney Cinderella. There was the Hilary Duff A Cinderella Story. There was the Brandy Cinderella (which was the best one and if you think otherwise you are sadly mistaken). And then, of course, there were books of fairy tales, with Cinderellas oozing out all over the place. So we were well versed in the Cinderella myth, and ready to spice things up a little. Levine took Cinderella from a passive character with big dreams, and turned her into Ella: a girl cursed with obedience, but determined to get what she wants nonetheless. Plus, she populated her fairy tale world with elves, ogres, and giants, going beyond the house-to-ball plot line to create a world that felt wonderfully real.
2. We understood feeling powerless
All kids know what it's like to feel powerless. And if you're a girl in addition to being a kid—forget about it. Ella was a character we could identify with, because she was constantly being bossed around and she had no choice but to obey. Having your free will snatched away is terrifying to anyone, but kids especially know what it's like to live under someone else's rules. And girls know what it's like to have certain expectations thrust on you from day one. Ella's circumstances were magical, but her struggle for independence was one that every young person could understand.
3. Because of Disney
Don't try to deny it: your childhood was planned out in a board room by Disney execs. And I'm not saying that Disney was all bad! I'll Make a Man Out of You is still my go-to running song. But Disney injected a love of princesses directly into our brains from an early age. And Ella Enchanted is the perfect mix of fairy tale princess fluff and burgeoning feminism: Ella isn't a proper young lady, and she doesn't want to be. She yearns for a life lived on her own terms. But she still gets to wear the dress and marry the prince. Levine doesn't condemn dresses and love stories; Ella can fall in love and still be one tough cookie. For the young feminist who was still into traditionally girly stuff, it was a dream come true.
4. Ella felt like a real person
Ella had spark. She was funny, rebellious, vulnerable, and determined. She had a gift for imitation and two left feet. She felt like an actual human being, not just a fairy tale cardboard cut out, and her fantastical situation didn't make her any less human. Meeting a new stepmother, going to a new school—she dealt with ordinary things, beyond being "blessed" with the need to obey. And on top of it all, she was a fun character — the kind of princess you'd want to hang out with.
5. The prince felt like a real person, too!
Prince Char was an actual, real human, too! He wasn't just a vague fantasy of the perfect man (although, let's be real, he was just a little too pretty and charming). In most versions of the Cinderella story, Prince Charming is just sort of a general symbol for money and male attention. But for Ella, Char's charm went way beyond that. He likes animals, he's interested in her for her personality, and he's definitely the kind of guy you could see running a decent kingdom.
6. And they had chemistry!
It helps that their love story doesn't just happen in a single night (also like... shoe size is not a solid foundation for a marriage). Ella and Char develop a relationship over years. They write to each other, she helps him tame ogres, she refuses him because she thinks her obedience is going to endanger his life — it's all way more romantic than the usual meet-at-ball romance. Plus Ella gets plenty of time to pine over him, which, as any preteen will tell you, is an extremely important part of young love.
7. It changed the way we looked at gender roles in stories
In the end, the prince doesn't rescue Ella from a life of servitude. Instead of the usual Cinderella stock ending, we get Ella rescuing herself. She breaks her own spell through sheer force of willpower. And maybe also, just a little bit, through the power of true love (look, it's ok to have just a little bit of the gooey fairy tale ending). She's not selected by a man based on the dimensions of her feet! Sure, that may not sound like a mind-blowing feminist revelation nowadays. But when we were kids that was huge. It inspired us all to think more deeply about the roles that girls and women have in other traditional stores. And, while the book still ends in marriage, it ends on her terms.
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