By Margaret Peterson Haddix
Part of me wishes I hadn’t read this again. For me, some of the magic really is gone from the pages of Just Ella. The first time I read this book, I was around nine years old and still in love with fairy tales and believing in the happy ever afters and romance and required annals of drama that go along with that.
Truly, my younger self missed the point of this book. In hindsight, that’s hilarious.
I should have read this book around age twelve instead. Just Ella is not meant to be a fairy tale; it’s meant to be a cautionary tale for young girls looking at relationships through a movie lens, the “rose-colored glasses,” if you’ll pardon the cliché. And it ends with Ella understanding the basic “looks aren’t everything” and “first feelings aren’t always right” lesson that most kids come up against in their early teen years.
The book begins looking at Prince Charming and his perfect self, perfect life, and perfect Princess. Ella, our protagonist, is clearly nothing more than infatuated from the get-go. Psychologically speaking, Haddix starts in a great spot. Readers should begin to clue in that something is off within the first few chapters. Mind you, this book is supposed to be for thirteen and fourteen-year-old kids, so it’s not meant to be subtle.
In which case, beware the minefield of clichés! This is the part of me that’s happy I read this a bit younger than the recommended age. I wasn’t too aware of clichés at nine. By the time I hit thirteen, I knew all about them. If you’re older and reading Just Ella for the first time, be prepared for some sentences that will make you groan. Yes, the writing is for young teenagers, but it is honestly rather forgettable. I put the book down and began writing this post—I like to write when books are fresh in my mind—after taking the day to read Just Ella on and off, and I can’t recall a single sparkle of wordsmithing I particularly enjoyed. Another bit of the language use that rubbed me the wrong way was the random modern idioms or phrases that were scattered throughout the story, taking me out of the action or scene entirely anytime I came across one. Yes, as an adult—and especially as a writer—I’m much pickier about my literature and word choices than most, but just because a book is meant for kids, doesn’t mean it can’t have some de-familiarization of the “same old” to push the barriers of language and create new associations and memorable prose.
I did feel the end was . . . rushed a little bit, as though Haddix felt she was running too close to her page maximum for a YA novel. I wouldn’t have minded the book being a tad longer.
That said, the secondary (true) love interest’s actions near the end were incredibly out of character. He sees a girl, beaten and starving and outright traumatized, and the first thing he does is confess he loves her and asks her to marry him. Really? I’m pretty sure I recall thinking that was ridiculous the first time I read it. Not just the rather insane situation makes me feel that way though; this character had been pretty well-rooted in practicality and scholarly seriousness for the entire book. The sudden change is jarring and unattractive.
In keeping with being a YA novel, Haddix has exactly zero morally gray characters. They either turn out to be “bad guys” or stay on the “good side.” Not necessarily a bad thing—especially for the genre and age range—but it felt like this book was written thinking teens couldn’t handle the far more lifelike middle ground.
Overall? Your ten-year-old who loves books will enjoy it! Adult me wishes I’d left it in the nostalgia category.
Next time will feature another childhood favorite—a gift from my best friend for my thirteenth birthday if the inside cover is accurate: Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre.