Shirley Hughes's Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz-Age Cinderella
Book review by Sarah Denslow
Cinderella story set in the 1920s
Shirley Hughes’ Ella’s Big Chance is worth checking out for the illustrations alone (they won Hughes the Kate Greenaway Medal, a British award for outstanding illustration). Hughes vivid pictures make the world of the roaring twenties come alive and make this book a treat to read (or even just look through).
The story itself is sweet and competently told, if not quite as exceptional as the artwork.
Ella’s Big Chance is (as you can guess from the subtitle) the basic Cinderella story with 1920’s counterparts to the players in the original tale. Ella is a seamstress, working in her father’s dress shop. Things go well for the most part, until her father remarries.
His new wife brings her two beautiful daughters with her and transforms the humble dress shop into a high fashion house, making Ella sew for long hours in the basement.
Here Hughes changes the narrative slightly – it is the stepsisters who meet the willowy beauty standards of the twenties, and Ella, while not unattractive, is not as slender as her sisters.
Hughes again deviates from the classic version by adding a friend for Ella (a human one, unlike those mice from the Disney version). Buttons is the delivery boy working for the dress shop. He loyally stands by Ella throughout, trying to cheer her up at bad times and even periodically standing up to her stepmother.
Of course, the Cinderella elements we know and love are still in play: the family is invited to a ball, which Ella is forbidden to attend. Finery provided for Ella by her fairy godmother and dancing with a grand duke ensue.
Hughes includes the tolling bell at midnight and the search for someone to fit the glass slipper, but puts a rather modern twist on the end. Can you guess? Yes, Ella decides not to marry the grand duke, but to marry Buttons instead. The final page shows the couple laughing merrily as they ride off on Button’s bicycle.
Ella’s Big Chance is longer than most picture books, and Hughes’ writing, while satisfactory, lacks the rhythm that the best picture books contain. Still she does spice the story up with a few interesting phrases here and there (the stepmother seems “to pop up from nowhere like a sharp-eyed, expensively dressed jack-in-the-box”).
In the end, though, the lively and colorful illustrations are what truly make this book magical. All in all, Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz-Age Cinderella is a completely charming book with an ending modern readers (especially parents) may find more endearing than the classic one.
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