Halloween week seems an appropriate time to review Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly. I got this book from the library after it was recommended by a local high school librarian as the best thing she had read all summer (and she reads a LOT). Think back to the Cinderella story you know. This ain’t it.
The key is on the front and back covers—“Beauty isn’t always pretty”(front), and “Don’t just fracture the fairy tale. Shatter it" (back).
Donnelly has rewritten the Cinderella story with a focus on the ugly stepsisters. The story begins with the two stepsisters, Isabelle and Octavia, each cutting off part of her foot so that it would fit the glass slipper. As in the original tale, that ploy doesn’t work, and Ella, the good, beautiful, cast-aside stepsister, gets the prince. She rides off in his carriage and lives happily ever after—or does she? As we read, we learn more about the motives of each stepsister and other characters, which furthers our understanding of their personalities.
This story can be read on different levels. To heighten the fantasy, Donnelly has Fate, Chance, and Isabelle’s free will duking it out. With help and a challenge from a shift-shaping godmother, Isabelle learns what her true heart’s desire is. She grows from having the narrow view of a female’s role imposed by her mother, making her vain and selfish, to becoming her country’s heroine. Yes, this is a story of female empowerment, suitable for older preteens and up.
Turning the traditional tale on its head, readers ponder: What is beauty? What is “a female role” in society? How do we respond to jealousy—our own and that of others? What is strength? How can we work together with people we may not like?
The writing is excellent and full of surprises. One of my favorite passages demonstrates why you would want to keep reading:
“Isabelle put her weapon down and her hands up. A sword was no match for a gun. Chest heaving, she stood, then slowly turned around, certain that another deserter had come up behind her and was pointing the pistol straight at her head.
Or maybe a burglar. A brigand. A cold-blooded highwayman.
Never, for a second, did she expect to see a monkey wearing pearls.” (p. 89)
When I researched the Cinderella story for my book for teachers and librarians, Once Upon a Time, I learned that this is considered a universal story. That means that instead of originating in one place and traveling to another, this story has versions that have originated in cultures around the world.
A couple of other good sources for fairy tale information are The Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie and the Sur la Lune website, as well as the work of Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes.