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What We’re Reading: Cinder Edna

(Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff)

Cinder Edna, the main character in a book by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Kevin O’Malley, is a name with all the grace and fluidity as gum stuck between the sidewalk and a shoe. And that is the point. Edna is not the typical protagonist in the story about the young woman who sits by the cinders. What makes this book so much fun is that Edna shares the saga with the familiar Ella, creating a comparison throughout the book that lets young readers, and their parents, laugh at the ways of both.

My foolproof way to read this fairy-tale spoof is to brush off my best Thurston Howell III voice and use it whenever Prince Randolph enters the story. My 6-year-old daughter has never seen an episode of Gilligan’s Island, but she recognizes social baloney when she hears it, and lets out a belly laugh every time she hears what was described by its Latin form as “Tetanus Pretentious” in a column by William Safire.

The book begins with “Once upon a time” and ends with “happily ever after” but prepare yourself for some audacious departures from the Cinderella story the big mouse may have told you.

Cinderella and Cinder Edna are neighbors and both have wicked stepmothers and stepsisters. When Cinderella finished her chores she sat “among the cinders to keep warm, thinking about all her troubles.” When Edna finished up her work, which she found edifying and purposeful, she “kept warm by mowing the lawn and cleaning parrot cages for neighbors at $1.50 an hour. She also taught herself to play the accordion.”

There’s a ball, of course, and Cinderella’s fairy godmother does what she needs to do to get the helpless Ella dressed and transported. Edna had a dress on layaway. She puts on some sensible loafers and catches a lift on the city bus.

It is at the ball that the locked-jaw prince Randolph makes his first appearance. He is every bit as boring and smug as Cinderella is beautiful and bland. Edna, on the other hand, is drawn to Randolph’s younger brother, Rupert, who recycles plastic punch cups and runs a home for orphaned kittens.

The stroke of midnight beckons both Ella and Edna home, the buses only run so late, we are told. And there is the classic search using the lost slipper and lost loafer, juxtaposed as so many other details are in this story.

At one point, when the earth-friendly Rupert finally reaches Edna’s home, his glasses having been destroyed by an earlier run-in with Randolph, he looks upon his love and thinks she looks like a large plate of mashed potatoes, a nose and eyes peeking out from swirls of white.

Sure, his vision has been blurred, but the book’s creators get one thing straight early in this story: “Edna…wasn’t much to look at.”

There is a burden, of course, for the stock character who isn’t beautiful. While my generation was watching reruns of Gilligan’s island, we saw enough episodes of The Facts of Life to know the Natalies, or Ednas in such stories, would need to depend on their humor to win people over.

But everyone is fair game in this book, and while my 9-year-old felt a particular loyalty to Cinderella, concerned when she was ridiculed, I think the satire is equally assigned. The only thing that escapes it is the story’s final question. Cinderella gets the big castle while Edna gets a cottage with solar heating. Cinderella listens to speeches by the Grand Archduke of Lethargia and Second Deputy Underassistant of Underwear, while Edna and her prince cook casseroles and play duets. And we are asked on the final page, “Guess who lived happily ever after?”

It’s the humor in this book, and perhaps my silly voice, that have cracked through a bit of the princess fantasy my 6-year-old daughter has embraced despite my hopes for a better legacy to my feminist upbringing. That mouse is a powerful storyteller and I’m often caught both loving and hating, at the same time, his worlds and characters and the affect the full shebang has on my girls.

Getting to that final question about happiness, as we compare the situations of Ella and Edna, doesn’t take away all of my conflicted feelings about princesses, but it does help my 6-year-old and I connect. And I suppose, as her mother, I’m the role model she looks to most, cinders or no cinders.

The book was published in 1994, before the most recent flurry of Disney Princess fever, and I asked the author, Ellen Jackson, over e-mail, why she wrote the story.

She told me she wanted to write something to show, “…that life could be good even if you’re not prom queen. In fact, life is much better when you get things because of your own efforts and when people appreciate you for your inner qualities. I don’t know if Cinder Edna gets that across, but that was my intention.”

As for the direct link with Cinderella, Jackson added her basis was Perrault’s version, and, “Let me just say that I’m in no way being disrespectful to the original Cinderella story. All those ancient myths, tales, and folklore can be read on many different levels. Storytellers have reinterpreted them again and again over the centuries and I’m sure they will for centuries to come. So mine is just one more.”

But Jackson has a special connection to the particular storyteller on many of our minds. Her mother worked for Walt Disney.

“In fact,” Jackson wrote me, “she worked on many of the early animation films, including Cinderella. She was a children’s librarian and worked in the studio library where a number of resource materials were kept. Her job was to find photos of furniture, buildings, and people—all the objects that were going to appear in the films (and later, Disneyland) to serve as a model to the artists and illustrators.”

But, as with my own sense that a mother’s influence can be stronger than a fairy tale’s, Jackson said, “…the distinction between fantasy and reality was never blurred in our house. I knew I didn’t have a fairy godmother, and I’d better get used to that fact.”

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff blogs at The Educated Mom and is an editor at Mindprint Learning. Follow her on Twitter.

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