Reader Retrospective: Ella Enchanted and Sisters of the Neversea

By: OwlCrate Jr

Middle grade stories are experiencing a renaissance, with some of the best authors and storytellers of our time venturing (some for the first time) into this space for budding readers. As lifelong readers, we’re taking a glimpse into our own pasts and highlighting the stories that inspired us to keep reading.

We’re starting off this Reader Retrospective with Shanleigh from OwlCrate Jr. Shanleigh likes to read a little bit of everything, from horror to comics to far-flung science fiction. But way, way back in the 90s, she was given a little book that went on to inspire her in a big way . . .

Let me start off with a question: Do you remember the book that turned you into a reader?

I do. I was nine and although I already had a reputation at my school for being a bookworm, I wouldn’t have personally called myself one. Sure, I liked to read, but it wasn’t entirely who I was. But then I ended up sleeping over at my aunt’s house one night and I asked if I could borrow one of my cousin’s books to help me fall asleep. She handed me Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, and with my hand on my heart, I can honestly say that seemingly innocuous action put me on an entirely new path.

Book cover for Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. A young white child with auburn, shoulder-length hair in a dark green velvet dress is centered, one arm resting on a ledge in front of them. The background is a muddy brown wall, with a slight peek at a window at the child's left elbow.

I dove headfirst into the children’s fantasy section at my local bookstore and honestly, I’ve never actually resurfaced. My book stack grew and grew, and it hasn’t stopped growing to this day. I got older and still, my need for stories has remained a constant in my life. My love for Ella Enchanted specifically influenced my love for fairy tales, so much so that I’m in the midst of writing a master’s thesis on the prevalence of modern fairy tale adaptations. And all this can be traced back to that moment when my aunt handed me a book.

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, allow me a brief introduction . . .

A retelling of Cinderella and published in 1997, Ella Enchanted follows Ella of Frell, a young girl who is cursed with the “gift” of obedience by a naively misguided fairy. Although the curse means she must obey any order given to her, she grows up stubborn, intelligent, and resourceful — a definite shift away from the docile and gentle Cinderella we’ve come to expect from the likes of Perrault or Disney. Ella eventually befriends the crown prince of Frell and befoes her stepfamily, but her ultimate goal is to break the curse so she may live her life freely and for herself.

I recently read Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith and it reminded me so much of that first time reading Ella. Sisters of the Neversea retells the story of Peter Pan but from the perspective of stepsisters Lily and Wendy. Lily is immediately skeptical of Peter’s boastful and uncanny nature, while Wendy longs for an adventure. What follows is a brilliant fantasy that re-centers the narrative of the original tale, acknowledges and confronts the flaws of its past, all whilst bringing a classically magical story into the modern era.

To modify an oft-quoted meme: Ella Enchanted walked so Sisters of the Neversea could run.

When I turned the first page of Ella, I didn’t know what lay in store for me. As I lay in bed, the room around me faded away until all I could see was the world made from paper and ink in my hands. Although cliched, when I finished the book for the first time, I turned right back to page one and started again. I think most self-described bookworms can remember their first favourite read, and I was lucky enough to find mine at age nine. To this day, I can replay whole passages in my mind. Ella Enchanted was my first favourite book, and though that list of favourites has changed over the years, Ella has steadfastly remained.

Book cover for Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Image shows three children flying above a residential street below them. The first child is a dark skinned Muscogee Creek child in pink pajamas with two pigtails flying above her. The second is a White child with short red hair in green pajamas, who holds onto a brown, multiracial child with short brown hair wearing blue pajamas.

The point of this entire rant is how Sisters of the Neversea brought back those incredible memories I had reading Ella Enchanted for the first time. For me, Ella was everything I wanted to be: she was courageous and brave, kind yet stubborn, and was able to think her way out of nearly any situation. Lily and Wendy are each very different people, yet complimentary in the best ways: where Wendy is fanciful, Lily is grounded; where Wendy is trusting, Lily is skeptical. Together, they make for a formidable team, the likes of which Peter is wildly unprepared.

Ella Enchanted made me the reader I am today, and I can’t help but wonder how many children will say the same about Sisters of the Neversea over the next few years. Although published almost twenty-five years apart, these two stories achieve something truly magical within their pages — they interrogate stories the reader thinks they may know, and asks them reevaluate them with a different understanding. I’ve witnessed firsthand how Ella Enchanted has grown over the years and now as an adult looking back, I'm eager to see the heights Sisters of the Neversea will fly in the years to come.

The stories we read as children shape the people we become. Ella steered me in a direction where my appetite for stories would never cease, where I would seek out fairy tales both new and old, and where I would always welcome a different perspective on an oft-told tale. 

I always love finding out the books that turned people into the readers they are, and now you know mine. If you haven't yet picked up either of these works, I urge you to seek them out now. No matter your age, you're never too young or too old for a good story. 

— Shanleigh