Just Ella is written by Margaret Peterson Haddix. It was published in 1999 by Aladdin. Haddix’s website can be found here.
Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Young Adult
“It’s a familiar story: in spite of the obstacles put in her way by her wicked stepmother, Ella goes to the ball, sweeps Prince Charming off his feet, and is chosen to be his bride. Now she’s comfortably ensconced in the palace, awaiting marriage to the man of her dreams. It’s happily ever after time, right?
Wrong! Life for Ella has become an endless round of lessons and restrictions; even worse, Prince Charming turns out to be more like Prince Boring. Why can’t she talk with him the way she can with Jed, her earnest young tutor?
Slowly, Ella comes to realize she doesn’t want the life she fought so hard to win. But breaking her engagement proves more difficult—and dangerous—than escaping her stepmother’s tyranny.”
This wasn’t what I’d imagined at the ball, the stars wheeling above me as I danced with the prince. Truthfully, I didn’t imagine anything. Just being at the ball was beyond my wildest dreams. And then everything happened so fast—the prince seeking me for his bended-knee proposal, everyone making wedding plans, me returning to the castle to stay, for good. I remembered an old neighbor woman cackling as I rode by, astonished, in the prince’s carriage: “Now, there’s one who will live happily ever after.”
I was cold. I was lonely. I was engaged to be married in two short months to the most handsome man I’d ever seen—the prince of the land, the heir to the throne. But I had never felt so alone in all my life, not even shivering in rags in my garret the day they came to say my father was dead.
This was happiness?
“Of course I didn’t suffer too much sun,” I told Mary crankily. “What’s too much sun? I barely saw a single ray of sunshine. It was that stupid dress. I couldn’t breathe. Why would anyone wear that torture device?”
Mary patted my hand.
“But you looked so beautiful in it, Your Highness. I saw you across the field…”
I snorted. “Oh, beauty. What’s that good for?”
Mary stared, her eyes round.
“It won you the prince, did it not?”
I snorted again. I seemed to be trying to do everything I could to annoy Madame Bisset, even though she wasn’t there.
“I prefer to think he was captivated by my charming personality.” I giggled to let Mary know I was trying to make fun of myself. But Mary only looked away.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing, Princess.” Mary patted my hand again. “I should leave and let you rest.”
“But I’ve been resting all day. I’m full of rest. I’m sick of it.” I shoved back the covers and sprang from the bed. I hopped up and down on the cold floor. “I want to do something. Jump. Dance. Run. Live.”
Recommended Age Range: 14+
What I Liked:
Ah, Margaret Peterson Haddix. She and Caroline B. Cooney (and Diana Wynne Jones) were the authors I devoured during my high school years (apparently I have a thing for authors with three names). Haddix does suspense/thriller/mystery often and well, so I actually had forgotten she had written a book like this until I saw it on the shelf.
I found it humorous how Haddix poked fun at fairy tales in this book, because even though Just Ella is a continuation of a fairy tale, it’s not actually a fairy tale. Haddix challenges people’s perceptions of and reactions to fairy tales through Ella’s character. It’s an attempt to show that sometimes happy-ever-afters aren’t how they appear to be, and that they can be hard to gain. It shows that sometimes people can be blinded and dazzled by something, and it’s not until afterward that they realize that they were wrong. It shows that happiness isn’t something that is constant or easy to gain. At the end, Ella sees that there will not be endless happiness in her future—but she is happy with her life, anyway.
What I Didn’t Like:
Haddix gets a little heavy-handed with Ella’s circumstances. Yes, we get it. Her “happily-ever-after” with Prince Charming is not at all what she thought it would be. Yes, we get that the palace is restricting to the point where there is no free will or original thought (yeah, right).
To me, it seemed that Ella went from one extreme to the other. She went from Charming, who is boring and ultimately coldly cruel and is only marrying her because of her beauty, to Jed, who is perfectly understanding, who perfectly says that he will wait, he will let her become a doctor, that he loves her because of her personality and not just her looks. Jed is so perfect that he is almost a parody himself, just like Charming is. Yes, Haddix tries to make him not so perfect, but then ultimately makes him even more perfect by the end. I think that Haddix’s attempt to make things seem realistic just made things appear unrealistic. Charming is unrealistic, Jed is unrealistic, at times Ella herself is unrealistic (she is perfectly rebellious against the perfectly bad restrictions of the castle). It’s hard to take things as seriously as Haddix wants us to take them, because in her attempts to display the “real” results of fairy-tale thinking, she makes her own story a fairy tale.
Just Ella has some good things to say about happiness while it gently pokes fun at fairy tales. However, Haddix often resorts into fairy-tale territory herself by overemphasizing the restrictions of the castle and by making Jed into a type of perfect Prince Charming, just as the Prince Charming in the novel is so uncharming. It’s hard to figure out just what Haddix is trying to say about fairy tales when she gets so fairy tale-y herself (or maybe that’s the point?).
You can buy the book here: Just Ella (The Palace Chronicles)
Coming Up Next: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones