Just Ella: A Review

Just Ella by Margaret Peterson HaddixWhen Ella attends the royal ball and wins the affections of Prince Charming, it should be a dream come true. All of the other pining girls in the kingdom of Fridesia certainly think so. When Ella is whisked to the palace for her engagement, it should be the perfect happy ending.

But life in the palace isn’t what Ella imagined. Instead of being welcomed and accepted Ella is subjected to countless lessons on etiquette and manners, genealogy and protocol. Ella is told how to dress, how to behave and where to go at all times.

No matter what she does, it seems that Ella is wrong or committing some grievous faux pas.

All of that might be bearable with Prince Charming beside her. But after their whirlwind romance at the ball, Ella is beginning to realize that Prince Charming’s beautiful face isn’t hiding inner depths. In fact, it isn’t hiding much at all.

Ella got herself to the ball and into  the palace. She’ll have to trust her instincts and ingenuity again to get herself out in Just Ella (1999) by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

Just Ella is the first book in Haddix’s Palace Chronicles series which continues with Palace of Mirrors and Palace of Lies.

Just Ella is an original retelling of Cinderella that considers what might come after the typical happily ever after ending of the fairy tale. While Ella though marrying Prince Charming would be her dream come true she finds it hard to reconcile the luxury and rigidity of palace life with the common sense she developed while working as a servant for her step-mother and step-sisters.

Although Ella is a teenaged character (and getting ready to marry) her narrative reads much younger making Just Ella a book with crossover potential for middle grade and young adult readers. Colloquialisms in the dialog and Ella’s modern sensibilities also led this story a fractured fairy tale vibe as the original fairy tale is bent and twisted to a more modern atmosphere and tone.

Just Ella is not always a ground-breaking story–the plot and themes here will be immediately recognizable by any fans of “anti-princess” tales–but Ella has her own charms as she struggles to make her own happy ending. Worth a look for any fairy tale readers and especially fans of retellings.

Possible Pairings: Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade coverI Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1999) by Diane Lee Wilson (find it on Bookshop) was selected as a Best Book for Young Adults in 1999 by the American Library Association. I didn’t know any of that when I read the book back in 2000. My copy has since disappeared, but at the time, this was a rare book that I owned. Thinking about it now, my mom must have procured my copy during her tenure as a researcher at Harper Collins.

But enough about me, this is about the book after all.

A quick and dirty way to define this book, oddly enough, is in terms of a cartoon movie. The plot here is similar to the legend of Mulan, which I know from the Disney version released in 1998 (I can’t believe it’s been a decade, good grief). Although her motivations are different, our heroine does follow a group of soldiers while disguised as a boy. The difference? Mulan went to war to fight the Huns. The main character of I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade is a Hun.

At the best of times, living on the Mongol Steppes involves harsh conditions. For Oyuna that is even more true. As a young child, almost beyond the range of her memory, a beautiful horse came near Oyuna. Fascinated, the child knew that her future–her entire life–would be tied to horses. She knew this to be true even as a horse stepped on her foot, effectively crippling her for life. Add into the bargain the fact that every member of Oyuna’s family are now anxious to keep her away from horses for fear of another unlucky incident that will further burden the family with bad luck.

Every family member except her grandmother that is, who (as the back cover convenienty points out) tells Oyuna “The horse claimed you as its own and invited you upon its back to travel with the wind.” Oyuna believes in her grandmother’s words even more when she crosses paths with a swift, white horse.

Positive that their fates are cobbled together, Oyuna dresses as a boy and follows her horse when it is commandeered by the Khan’s army. Oyuna’s path leads her not only to her horse, but also directly to the court of Kublai Khan, and–even more valuable–the knowledge that she has the power to change her own luck once and for all.

If my mom hadn’t given me a copy of this book, I never would have picked it up. But I’m glad the book came into my possession. Oyuna is an arresting character, with a strong narrative voice that makes this work of historical fiction feel very contemporary and relevant. Not an actual princess, Oyuna can’t strictly be called an “anti-princess” heroine. All the same, I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade presents a strong girl making her own way (in a great story).

Possible Pairings: Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Speak: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

Speak by Laurie Halse AndersonIf there is a canon for contemporary teen literature, Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson is in it. (Find it on Bookshop.) A Printz Award honor book and a National Book Award finalist in 1999, this book is, quite frankly, awesome.

The story follows Melinda Sordino during her first year in high school. Starting high school is hard enough, but for Melinda it’s even worse. Over the summer, Melinda became a social outcast and now watches the goings at school from the fringe. She also doesn’t talk to anyone if she can avoid it.

The reasons for Melinda’s shunning by the rest of the school and her reticence are revealed as the novel progresses and Melinda tries to define herself in light of that summer. Along the way, Melinda finds the outlet she needs in an unlikely place: her high school art room.

Anderson’s writing voice is utterly unique, making this novel a real experience to read. It is one of the few novels out there that is completely conversational while maintaining an absolutely realistic voice. Melinda’s narration is snappy and caustic. Being written in the present tense adds to the immediacy of the novel.

In addition to dealing with Melinda’s trauma and her healing process, this book addresses a lot of common issues for teens. Anderson aptly portrays what it feels like to be the outcast with no one to  sit with on the first day of school. And how hard it is to realize that sometimes having no friend is better than having a bad one.

Strangely, for a novel where the narrator doesn’t speak to other characters, one of the best features of this novel is Anderson’s dialogue.  Even though Melinda rarely has anything to say to other characters, the dialogue flows, Anderson making used of ellipsis and asides in the narration to fill in Melinda’s half of the “conversations.”

Even though Anderson is writing about a narrow experience, this is a book that everyone should read. Even if you don’t usually read “chick lit,” check out Speak for the excellent writing. I have never seen a character that sounds as real as Melinda, or a writing style as fresh as Laurie Halse Anderson’s.

A couple years ago, this book was made into a movie for the Lifetime network. If you plan on reading the novel, do so before you see the movie. The events of the story are much more powerful if you read it without knowing what’s coming up next.

Also, after you finish Speak, be sure to check out Catalyst–a novel set a few years after Speak in the same community/high school.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell