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

Anyone could be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: An Article Response in Which I Say We Need More Stories

An article has been making the rounds of my twitter stream this past week. Fellow librarian Jody Wurl brought it to my attention. Maggie Stiefvater had a few thoughts about it on Saturday. You might have heard about it from someone else.

The article is: “I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl” by Laurie Penny (posted on the New Statesman site)

To start, “Manic Pixie Dream Girls” are a character type often found in bildungsroman movies featuring male leads. They fall in love, the MPDG shows the man how to live. She disappears, dies or otherwise fades away leaving the male lead better for the acquaintance. Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t really a character in a film or book. She is a plot device. She is a trope. She is Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, Kiersten Dunst in Elizabethrown, the female lead in either version of Sweet November. (Did you know the version with Richard Gere was a remake? Because I did not until last week.)

She was also, at one point, writer Laurie Penny.

Her article is really interesting and I suggest you all go read it because Penny has a lot of valuable thoughts about feminism and what being a feminist really means. I was especially pleased when the second paragraph nailed all of my issues with Dr. Who. I’ve wanted to like Dr. Who for years. Since Rose was the Doctor’s companion. But I never could get there. For a while I thought Donna Noble would be able to transcend her role as companion. And she did. Only to be written out and told she isn’t allowed to have those things, or even want those things, after.* And then we went back to having a dashing, manic in his own right, Doctor and a pretty, young companion to keep him company and show him how to understand humanity.

Maybe I’ll start watching again when the Doctor regenerates as a woman.

Anyway, after that insight, Penny explains that she was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the short stature to the pixie cut to the ukelele playing.

And that’s when things got interesting because Penny also posited that women (girls when they are MPDGs) never have the expectation of being the hero of their own story. Instead she suggests “Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.”

Later in the article she goes on to say that this is the reason MPDGs appear in real life:

“Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing.”

Penny came to realize that personality had to go when she wanted to be a writer and that meant becoming a “grown fucking woman” and making choices that would ultimately alienate and intimidate potential male partners.

Penny tries to end on an up note urging women to write their own stories, create their own characters and, more importantly, grow up and leave the Manic Pixie Dream Girl behind.

Reading the article I had a lot of “duh” moments because it feels like information anyone (or maybe I should say anyone who identifies as a feminist) would know already. But maybe there are people out there who didn’t know. And maybe that makes this article surprising to some.

For me, it wasn’t surprising and I thought it was one-sided and missed some key points (thus the giant response post so that we can all talk about this together!).

I’ve never been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I am neither short or thin enough although I often had the right hair. I think I’ve always been too pragmatic and far too caustic. And to borrow Penny’s own phrasing, I was a “grown fucking woman” long before I decided to pursue writing (if you can call what I’m doing writing–there’s a novel in the works and this blog–I grant it’s no professional career . . . yet). My mother is disabled and I’ve been helping run the household since college. We co-manage an eBay shop. I’ve had a job since I was seventeen-years-old and put myself through college and grad school with that job and a combination of scholarships and state funding.

I don’t know Penny’s life but I found the idea that the biggest facet of becoming a grown woman was becoming a writer deeply frustrating and deeply misleading. Much like the rich inner life a MPDG never reveals, we all have responsibilities and things we carry. I’ve been carrying things since I was in my teens. It has never had anything to do with my writing or professional choices. (And, frankly, I think the idea that being a political writer is the only thing to be intimidating to Penny’s suitors somewhat laughable. Maybe that was part of it but I dare say being outspoken, well-educated, and a feminist contributed just as largely.)

I don’t know what stories Penny had growing up. I don’t know the books she read or the things she did. But I was sad when I read that she fell into the role of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because it was the character she saw again and again that most resembled herself. I was sad when she talked about men growing up to be heroes and women growing up to be damsels.

I suspect all of the credit here goes to my mother but I didn’t have that moment. I have never for one second doubted that I am the hero of my own story. Sometimes it’s a dumb story. Boring even. But it is always my story. And I am never, ever in a supporting role. I don’t think that always has to do with the models available. I watched the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty every day when I was a toddler. I loved anything and everything princess as a child (I still do).** That has never lessened my conviction that I can accomplish great things all on my own. Because my mother never let me think any less of myself; she never doubted me.

Returning to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as fictional character (rather than real person), Penny goes on to say MPDG is “one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority.” Here’s the thing (which Maggie Stiefvater said on Saturday on Twitter) as we see her, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was never meant to have an interior life. Because the story is never about her. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right but the MPDG is a plot device. She is there to teach something, to showcase something. She is not there to tell her own story.

It is a shame that there is a whole trope about these (young) women who descend to impart wisdom only to disappear but there it is. If the story were from her point of view, we wouldn’t be dealing with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at all. We just don’t call them that because we’re busy calling them the HEROINE. One recent example is Kiri in Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith. But there are others too. From the outside these characters look like Manic Pixie Dream Girls but because the story is in their head–because we get to see the cracks and flaws in that persona they wear like armor–they transcend the label and become more than a plot device.

But here’s the thing: This problem exists for any character. Any character, any person, who is boiled down to a core set of stereotypes and traits is going to be seen as less than the sum of their parts. They are always going to exist as more legend than person. What is Edward Cullen or Mr. Darcy*** but a reinvented version of Prince Charming–a male character meant to rescue a princess and/or take her on a great adventure?

While some of the logic was (fairly and rightly) skewed, I agree wholeheartedly with Penny about the power of story: “What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds. Writing is a different kind of magic, and everyone knows what happens to women who do their own magic – but it’s a risk you have to take.”

I’ll finish now by taking that one step further: We don’t just need new stories for women. We need new stories period. We need stories for the nice guy who is never going to fall into a bad boy situation. We need stories for the girl who cares more about studying than prom. We need stories for people of color. We need stories for the kids who are still trying to find a way to articulate who they are and who they want to be.

We need more stories.

We need more stories to move beyond characters as plot devices–be it a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a Prince Charming or something else entirely. We need more stories to be mirrors instead of exemplars. Personally, I’m looking forward to finding those stories.

*Seriously. The “Dr. Donna” storyline is tragic. I still haven’t recovered.

**One of the first fantasies I ever read (when I was eleven), and one of my most favorite, was A Wizard of Earth Sea by Ursula K. LeGuin. It has no female characters (beyond one herb witch who acts as a rudimentary teacher in early chapters). It doesn’t even have room for female characters because girls can’t become wizards. I didn’t read that and go about to make myself an ideal companion for these adventure-having characters. I sat down on my family’s first-ever computer, put in a fresh floppy disk, and I started writing a version of the story where a girl did become a wizard. (I guess this would also be one of my only forays into fan fiction–years and years before I even knew what fan fiction was. But that’s a different post.)

***Or Peter Pan or Po or Adam or my beloved Alan Ryves or any other devastating male lead.