Saturday, February 15, 2014

Reading: Cinderella Retold by Cynthia Rylant

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Published in 2007, the Cinderella story written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Mary Blair tells a well-known Western fairy tale with beautiful illustrations.  The cover page made me nostalgic for Saturdays spent at home watching Disney movies in the afternoon with my sister and my dad.  Cinderella was one of our favorite movies, particularly for the cute little animals that Cinderella befriends!  Unfortunately, those cute little animals were omitted from this story in exchange for some mushy ramblings about love, which I am not so sure children will understand or enjoy.  I feel like a big ol' mean-head when I say this, but if I am truly being honest as I begin to review this book for the sixteenth time today, I have to say that I am surprisingly not an admirer. I felt as if something was missing.   While I appreciate the vintage aesthetics of this story, I feel that it is told with minimal details, and the characters are not developed for readers to really become acquainted with them.  

In Cynthia Rylant's version of Cinderella, Cinderella is an unloved girl enslaved by an evil stepmother and stepsisters.  She desires only one thing in life, and that is to be loved, to be pulled away from her wicked stepfamily and never forgotten about again! This book doesn't really explore the meaning of love, except to imply that the kind of love Cinderella is seeking is the love of a Prince Charming, since that's the kind of love she receives at the end of the book.  I wonder why the author left out the caring mice and birds that help Cinderella to get ready for the ball as seen in the motion picture? Those particular creatures certainly cared for Cinderella, but it seems that Cythnia Rylant wanted Cinderella to seem void of love or friendship of any kind.  

While the author paints the stepmother and stepsisters to be especially cruel, I wish she had extended the idea of love to include the love that one feels for family.  And I wish that somehow, somewhere, an act of love could have been shown to the cruel stepfamily so that their hearts could warm up a little.  People are not born cold-hearted and cannot become immune to love and goodness and cheer, as those things are always contagious! I know that showing love towards the stepfamily is not embedded into the original fairy tale, but wouldn't it have been interesting if Cynthia Rylant had explored that in her emphasis of love in this book?  

Further, the magical appearance of the Fairy Godmother seems like an act of love, as well!  This mysterious being helped the sorrowful girl to prepare for a trip to the palace, seeking nothing in return!  If that's not love, then I don't know what is! However, the fairy Godmother arose from Cinderella's tears, and I was surprised to read that "tears are magical" and can change things.  I hope I don't sound cold-hearted or bitter because I am certainly not, but I have to argue with the author's point there.  I am a very sensitive person, and if I were forced to cook and clean and live in a scullery all day, I'd cry all the time!  But tears don't really change anything; it's the action that a person takes to change his/her situation that really matter.  If only we could all be so lucky to have our tears transform into fairies who make our dreams come true!  Then again, I guess that's the point of a fairy tale!  

Because I was left to question the author's narrow focus on love and was disappointed in the exclusion of some events I had expected to read about from the movie, I didn't particularly enjoy reading the story.  It's not that the book wasn't well-written, but I felt like this was perhaps more of a philosophy on love than it was an actual story that I would share with my students.  For example, I read the following lines to my fiancé to see if his opinion meshed with mine: 

Love meant nothing, and if love ever did come to them, it is unlikely they would have even know what it was.  Like the roses, which did not bloom across their doorways, Love itself did not even linger. 

Perplexed, he asked, "That's a kid's book?"  I mean, sure, the words are lovely, and I do appreciate lovely writing, but if I read this to my own students, they might be bored.  And as I've already said, I want to see cute birds and mice singing songs when I read fairy tales!  Replicating the Disney version of Cinderella, I feel like this book eliminates the most fun aspects! 

The element that I did enjoy about this book is the illustrations by Mary Blair, an illustrator for several Walt Disney books.  The title page alone makes me nostalgic for my childhood days, and the rest of the pictures are mostly full-bleed sketches that look reminiscent of the animated movie.  A little bit of research taught me that the images in the book were actually the drawings first created for the film in the 1950's.  The colors and shapes of the book and film are certainly very similar, but the characters in this book seem a little more abstract than they do in the movie. 

I notice a lot of dark illustrations at first, save for a little bit of pink in the flowers that surround Cinderella's mirror, the bright and shining white of Cinderella's ball gown, and the glow of the palace itself.  When Cinderella rushes back to be home by midnight, the shapes of the horses and surrounding landscape look to be moving in a rushed way, showing the urgency of Cinderella's mission.  When I look at the pictures, I feel like they're getting ready to come to life, and I want to see more!   

If I were to present this aesthetically-pleasing book to my students during a fairy tale unit, it would be crucial to talk about the characters, what attributes they possess, and why.  The author says that Prince Charming is loyal, honorable, courageous, and a person of integrity; all of these words are important for students to understand, and I strive to incorporate literature into the classroom that feature characters with these traits.  Discussions could certainly ensue about what these words mean and how to showcase each word in daily living, especially since the author does not provide evidence to show how the prince embodies such characteristics.  Being that this book is a solid fictional story, I can imagine doing many summarizing activities, including sequence organizers and story element flip-books.  It would also be integral to read this book with other Cinderella-themed books, particularly those from other cultures, to compare/contrast the fairy tales and determine what makes certain versions more enjoyable than others. Going back to the point I made earlier, I would also like my students to imagine what could have happened if someone did show love for the stepfamily.  Are people with mean spirits always going to stay mean?  I think (and hope) not!  

If I had read this book with no prior knowledge of Cinderella, I don't think I would be moved by it.  The characters are not strongly developed, and even though Cinderella gets to ride off into the sunset with her prince, the text itself feels joyless.  Perhaps this book is more of a collector's item for devoted Disney fans or for fans of Mary Blair's illustrations.  In my next few blog posts, I will be looking at some other versions of Cinderella and am excited to compare and contrast them with this version to formulate a stronger understanding of the fairy tale. 

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