To this day, I still read Ella. It's absolutely, hands-down, my favorite book. And it's written for children ages eight and up. A true work of art, I have re-read this book countless times, as has my sister. In fact, between the two of us we'd read it so many times in high school our copy was in pieces. Actual pieces. So, we did what any baby-sitting 15-year-olds would do and bought a replacement copy, which proved a serendipitous decision that allowed us to read the book at the same time (Out loud. To each other).
The story exists within the kingdom of Frell, an imaginary land inhabited by humans, ogres, fairies, giants, and other mythical creatures. As an infant the title character receives a gift from a fairy, constant obedience, which in reality turns out to be a curse. As with all Cinderella stories, Ella loses her mother - though in this version her father does little to compensate for the loss. Unlike traditional tales, we meet Ella's mother early in the story. The mother is a wonderful, bright, funny lady and Ella's best friend. Though as readers we see her death coming, it is no less painful. It is at her mother's funeral that Ella meets Prince Charmonte, sparking her journey towards love and liberation.
Following her mother's death Ella's father re-marries a hideously materialistic dolt of a woman who, of course, has two daughters of her own. The story follows Ella through a stint in boarding school, an ill-fated quest to find the fairy who cursed her, a bumbling nit-wit of a father, a banishment to the scullery by her step family, a loss of friendship - all while forced to listen to commands and orders, no matter who issues them. Despite her obstacles, Ella maintains a correspondence with Prince Charmonte. The friendship and then romance between Ella and Char reads true - Ella is bright, smart, funny, and kind where Char is loyal, true, and steadfast. Instead of love at first sight, Levine builds a real relationship between Ella and her prince, making the eventual happy ending that much more satisfying. As a reader you want Ella to be released from her curse and marry Char not because that's what you expect but because she is so deserving of happiness. Levine sculpts a whole character, with flaws and charm and feelings. Ella's strength and determination are empowering for young girls (and twenty-five-year-old married women like myself).
I would be remiss not to mention Mandy, Ella's fairy godmother - every good Cinderella story has one and Mandy does not disappoint. Loving, magical, nurturing, and a little bossy, Mandy functions as Ella's guide towards deliverance. Throughout the story Ella grapples with understanding her curse and Mandy is instrumental in helping Ella grow into the lady she was always meant to be. Though Mandy cannot replace Ella's mother by any means, she does her best to provide Ella with all the love and encouragement she needs.
If you're a lover of children's literature or a mother of a young girl, pick this up at B&N this weekend. I cannot recommend a book with more enthusiasm. And if you read it please check back in and tell me! Now off to read it all over again :-)
See, my second copy isn't even in one piece!
And, though I hesitate to even reference its existence, yes - the film starring Anne Hathaway and Hugh Dancy is an "adaptation" of this book. But it is terrible! Completely, absolutely awful. The movie is so loose an adaptation of Levine's work I'm surprised Hollywood could use the same title.