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Ms. Levine’s first children’s novel is this 1997 Newbery Honor Book, which has recently been made into a movie. (Robbie’s note: Whoops. Don’t go to see the movie after all. It really stinks.) And in a way, it’s nothing new. It’s another version of the classic Cinderella tale, which has been made into countless movies (like Ever After), books (like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) and even operas (La Cenerentola by Rossini). But this version has some fascinating twists that make it quite its own tale, and its heroine will win you over.
Young Ella (full name, Eleanor) is cursed. Actually the curse was meant as a blessing by the dangerously foolish fairy named Lucinda who appeared at her birth. The result is that, whenever someone gives her a direct command, she must obey. The “gift of obedience” sounds nice at first, but it soon palls when the people around you thoughtlessly use the Imperative Mood. But it gets worse.
First, Ella’s lovely mother dies after ordering Ella never to tell anyone about the curse. Then her nasty, selfish father sends her to a finishing school where her worst enemy in the world soon learns her secret and how to use it against her. Then, having run away from school in an effort to track down Lucinda and demand that she take back her “gift,” Ella is set upon by man-eating ogres who have a natural gift of persuasion, with or without the aid of a christening curse. And after Ella is rescued, her hopes of being un-cursed are dashed, her father becomes even more hideous, and Ella finds herself stuck with the most horrible stepmother and ugly stepsisters you can imagine… and forced to be their servant.
But the worst comes when she and the handsome prince fall in love with each other, and it is her curse that must separate them forever. If you thought the bit about the coach turning into a pumpkin and the prince looking for the foot to fit a glass slipper was the climax of the Cinderella story, you haven’t read this version. For Ella realizes that her curse would put the prince she loves, and the kingdom he will rule, in unspeakable danger. How can she live with her own broken heart, when she must break his to save him? And how can she avoid being given the most awful and at the same time most desirable command: “Marry me”?
The suspense is exquisite. The young lovers suffer so beautifully. And the curse is enough to drive anyone crazy… except the reader, who will be delighted. Besides all that, it is a smooth and clear read: it rewards the effort of reading so richly, that it seems like no effort at all. So don’t just watch the film (though I hope you enjoy it). Do read this book!
Care of Magical Creatures advisory: This story abounds in magical beings, such as elves, gnomes, ogres, and giants. But the one that will come as the biggest surprise to Harry Potter fans is the centaur.