Before Harry Potter swept in and defined my generation, two books left remarkable impressions on me. Two very different books, but they had a strong impact on me and many of my peers. I’m going to look back at these books in two blog posts. The first is on my introduction to romance. It was 1997. I was eight years old. The book was Ella Enchanted.
If you haven’t read this book by Gail Carson Levine (or seen the poorly adapted film version, whose only saving grace was Anne Hathaway), it’s a Cinderella story about a girl, Ella, given the “gift” of obedience as an infant, her struggle to get rid of the curse, and her relationship with Prince Charmont (Char). It takes place in a delightfully traditional yet imaginative fantasy world, with ogres and gnomes and elves and giants populating the country. I can say definitively and unequivocally that Char and Ella’s relationship is one of the purest, strongest romances in literature.
Though Ella Enchanted is a children’s chapter book, it’s more complex, interesting, and strongly characterized than quite a number of adult books. Gail Carson Levine is brilliant. I went to a reading of hers a few years ago at the National Book Festival, and it was interesting to see the crowd of people there. A lot of ten, eleven, and twelve year old girls and their parents, but not a small number of high school and college students like myself, who were in their tween years when Ella was first published. A friend of mine once told me that Ella and Char’s relationship was a defining aspect of her childhood.
Ella Enchanted was, I think, one of my first tastes of romance. I relished the interactions between Ella and Char, the development of their affection for each other, the teasing and serious nature of their letters, the struggles they faced in being together—and most of all, their triumph over the hungry ogres, misguided fairies, and malicious step-siblings that tried to pull them apart. It was a fairy tale romance, but not an anonymous one. Our heroine and hero were not total strangers, in love with an image or ideal. Ella was no Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, and Char was not a perfect and dashing Prince Charming, sweeping in to save our heroine. Ella saves herself – and Char. This is a fairytale with a real relationship and a strong heroine. What wasn’t there to fall in love with?
I tore through a number of Levine’s other books searching for similar fairy-tale-with-a-kick plots, then to fantasy/historical young adult novels, then young adult stories. It wasn’t long before I read an equally defining, but far more mature and bittersweet book that I’ll tell you about later.