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A Feminist Retelling of Cinderella: Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019 | Posted by Elizabeth Galewski

Stepsister CoverIsabella is ugly and mean, and that’s why readers love her.

She isn’t pretty. She isn’t perfect. She likes things she’s not supposed to like, such as military history, swordplay, and horseback riding. She does things she’s not supposed to do. She says what she actually thinks, rather than what men want to hear.

Isabella’s nonconformity makes her a target. Her mother tries to control everything she does, shoehorning her into the rigid mold for a marriageable young woman. Acquiring a wealthy husband is the only acceptable future her mother can imagine in this patriarchal society.

Yes, Isabella knows she’s been a real bitch to Ella, her stepsister. But Ella is beautiful, sweet, and unfailingly pleasant. She always fits in. Men are eager to give her whatever she wants, including chocolate bonbons.

When the prince comes to their house with a glass slipper, looking for his lost love, her mother coerces Isabella to cut off her toes to fit her foot into the shoe. The prince and his retinue accept Isabella as the new princess until she’s walking to the coach, when her blood gives her away. The prince sets her aside and turns to leave, when Ella bursts out of the house.

There she is – the love he was looking for.

The captain of the guard comes forward with the glass slipper, nested on a pillow. He trips on something, falls… The glass slipper shatters.

But then Ella pulls its partner out of a pocket in her dress. It goes on her foot perfectly, as we knew it would.

Reunited, the prince and his beloved climb onto the coach and ride off into the countryside.

But for Isabella, Ella’s happily ever after is just the beginning. Without her toes, she can no longer even stay on her ornery, aging horse. She must hobble and limp, making her easy prey for the bullies in the village. But not just the bullies pile on. Everyone knows how she treated Ella, who’s now queen. So everyone hates her and lets her know it.

Stepsister is “Cinderella” like you’ve never read it before. In Jennifer Donnelly’s version of the tale, readers resent Ella just as much as Isabella does. Likewise, we root for Isabella and her sister Tavi, another bright, curious girl who deserves a full life. We cheer as they break free of this restrictive society, which constantly bombards them with the message that appealing to men is the only thing that matters. We want them to get their own happily ever afters.

But Stepsister is more than just an engaging story set in the French countryside with easy-to-read but still lyrical prose. It also offers an important moral. As Donnelly explains on her official author’s website:

All too often, we believe what others tell us we are. We let their words define us and direct us. We take the poison apple they offer us and bite right into it… Isabelle showed me, and I hope she’ll show my readers, too, that there’s a way to refuse that poison apple. A way for them to fight the tyranny of Likes and Follows and Rates. A way to stop letting magazines and social media tell them who’s beautiful, to start defining beauty for themselves, and most important of all, a way to find beauty in themselves.”

Jennifer Donnelly is the best-selling and award-winning author of a dozen novels. Scholastic Press released Stepsister on May 14, 2019, and the book earned a spot on the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult Hardcover for six weeks, from June 2nd until July 7th.


Elizabeth Galewski is the author of The Wish-Granting Jewel, a fantasy novel, and Butterfly Valley, a tale of travel and transformation based on true events. To learn more, please visit her official author’s website at www.elizabethgalewski.com.

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