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Top 100 Children’s Novels #85: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

#85 Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1997)
23 points

Fractured fairy tales are a favorite genre of mine. – Dee Sypherd

Up to #85 from #92, I’m pleased to report!  Sometimes it can be difficult to locate sweet younger middle grade fantasies.  This one remains pretty perfect from start to finish, though.

The plot as told by Horn Book says, “Cursed at birth with the gift of obedience by an irresponsible fairy, Ella [in Ella Enchanted] is powerless to resist the commands of others. Witty and willful, Ella has managed to hide her affliction from the rest of the world, but when her beloved mother dies, she is sent to a finishing school by her merchant father and finds herself at the mercy of the despicable Lady Hattie, who has discovered her secret. Determined to reverse the spell, Ella runs away from school in search of the offending fairy. Along the way she encounters elves, ogres, giants (all imaginatively rendered by Levine), and a company of knights led by Prince Charmont, who clearly finds the plucky heroine completely enchanting. But Ella’s plan fizzles, and her father sends her to live with her new stepmother and stepsisters–one of whom is Lady Hattie–who consign her to the kitchen as a scullery maid. Expert characterization and original ideas enliven this novelization of ‘Cinderella’.”

Not that the path to publication was strewn with rose petals.  As Ms. Levine said in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, “I didn’t write professionally at first. It took me nine years to get anything published. At the beginning I mostly wrote picture books, which were rejected by every children’s book publisher in America. The first book of mine to be accepted for publication was Ella Enchanted, and not one but two publishers wanted it. That day, April 17, 1996, was one of the happiest in my life. Nowadays, when I visit schools, I often read my worst rejection letter to the kids. That letter, which made me miserable at the time, no longer has the power to hurt me. Nowadays, it’s now a prized possession, a symbol for never giving up.”

The book won a prestigious Newbery Honor.  The ultimate winner that year instead?  Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

Alas, Ella is a true victim of Hollywood.  The Ella Enchanted film managed to create such unholy carnage that even the combined talents of Anne Hathaway and Cary Elwes couldn’t save it.  Fortunately, the movie has quickly been forgotten and with each passing year more readers read about Ella’s adventures and forget about the film’s.

Booklist said of it, “As finely designed as a tapestry, Ella’s story both neatly incorporates elements of the original tale and mightily expands them, not only with the myriad consequences of the curse but also with a heroine so spirited that she wins readers’ hearts.”

Horn Book agreed with, “Expert characterization and original ideas enliven this novelization of “Cinderella.” Built around the traditional elements of the fairy tale–including the fairy godmother, glass slippers, pumpkin coach, and royal balls–and at times limited by those restraints, the retelling boasts an admirable heroine who discovers her inner strength by combating her greatest weakness.”

Said The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, “Levine leaves the familiar motifs intact–wicked stepmother, glass slipper, midnight curfew at the ball–but by establishing an easy, playful friendship between Ella and the prince which blossoms gradually into love, she offers readers with feminist sensibilities the assurance that life with Charmont (the prince you want to bring home to mother) will in fact be happy, ever after.”

And School Library Journal agreed with, “[T]his is a rich and creative retelling of a fairy tale. … A thoroughly enchanting novel that deepens and enriches the original tale.”

Since it came out in 1997 Levine’s best known novel hasn’t had much of a chance to accrue too many different jackets.  I do have to say that I did love the new paperback one they gave it not too long ago.  The age of the girl is positively perfect (not to say rare).


And by contrast, in the what-the-heckety-heck column we have . . .


This would be the point where I embed the trailer for the film.  It is, however, too awful.  I know some of the videos I’ve placed in this post aren’t stellar, but this is actually too terrible to put here.  You can go here if you’re desperate to see it.  *shudder*

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Oh, yes–the film is shuddery, awful, and an insult to the book! I think they were trying to merge Shrek with Ella Enchanted, and they failed on both counts.

  2. I actually enjoyed the film – but I was only able to do so by completely divorcing it from the book in my mind. Taken on its own merits, it’s silly but not too despicable. Although it’s entirely possible that I only like it for Anne Hathaway’s song-and-dance routine, and for a chance to see “Westley” hamming it up as the bad guy.

    Revamping traditional fairy tales has become so popular in MG lit these days, but I don’t think anyone has come close to the sheer charm and wit of Ella Enchanted.

  3. I read this book with a group of my AG students every year when we did a Cinderella unit. The year the movie came out they all came back from seeing it the first weekend so angry at what it had done to the book they loved. This year, as I had students for the first time in 7 years, I taught it again and it’s still a hit. (With the boys as well as the girls. They never want to read it when we are starting but they all end up liking it by the end.)

  4. Love this book! But I think the girl on the cover of the new paperback looks way too young. Ella’s in Finishing School for most of the story, and she’s getting married at the end. Okay, at the start she’s a little girl, but that doesn’t last….

    Have you noticed that lately many fairy-tale type stories for middle grade don’t have the heroine old enough to get married? My personal opinion is that’s partly why they put little-girl Ella on the new cover. I notice because I’ve written one I’d think of as “like Ella Enchanted” — but the heroine needs to be old enough to get married.

    It seems like “sweet” books are by default not considered YA, even if the character is a young adult.

    Anyway, this one is exceptionally good. I was so happy when it won a Newbery Honor! (And personally, I like it much better than Out of the Dust, but never expected a Newbery committee to give such a light-hearted fantasy the nod. They did good!)

  5. Love love love. One of my didn’t-quite-make-my-list-but-COULD-have almost-votes.

  6. ELLA ENCHANTED definitely made my top ten list! Such wit, charm and determination.

    I’m a person who has complained for years about the 4 D’s of children’s literature: death, divorce, dysfunction and disease. At one point, I was in the middle of a quiet little rant on that topic and found myself thinking, “Why can’t there be more books out there like ELLA ENCHANTED?” A few seconds later, I realized that two of my four D’s were integral to the plot. Oops. But I can’t help loving books that combine honest emotion with humor.