In some senses, I’ve always been a reader. My parents read to me as a child and took me to the library. As a toddler, I lived down the street from the local library. I remember my mom walking me down there after my older siblings had left for school. I remember sitting on the carpet to listen to the librarian at story time. When I think about it, a great deal of my fond early memories have to do with reading. Reading at the library, reading at school, reading at the church library, reading on the couch with Mom or Dad. I’m thankful to my parents and to all the teachers and librarians in my childhood who fostered my love of reading like it was some kind of particularly fussy plant.
However, there’s a stark contrast between the way I read in elementary school versus middle school. In elementary school, I was content to read through books one after another. I don’t remember the age when I was young enough to demand the same bedtime story every night. By the time I was old enough to read for myself, I would finish a book and move right to the next one. I didn’t mind reading a book again if nothing else looked appealing, but I didn’t obsess.
That changed with a book I first encountered in the third grade, Ella Enchanted. My teacher, Mrs. Biolsi, was a kind older lady who encouraged my growth in every subject. I ate up science and math lessons just as eagerly as reading and writing with her. To my knowledge, she is now retired and still lives in the area. Every day after lunch, she would gather the class on a blue carpet to listen to her read aloud. I usually paid attention, although I also remember occasionally poking at the braid of a classmate who had long, glossy hair. (Sorry, Ashley.) Aside from recess, it was everyone’s favorite part of the day.
There’s a stereotype that girls will read “boy books,” but boys won’t read “girl books.” Well, Ella Enchanted is definitively a “girl book,” but it was a class favorite across the board. Maybe it was the ogres; maybe boys will give “girl books” a chance if you don’t make it seem like a bad thing; maybe it’s Maybelline. In any case, we always begged for Mrs. Biolsi to read one more chapter. Ella being banished to finishing school, running away, being kidnapped by ogres, lying to Char so he would forget about her, meeting him again at a masquerade– this stuff was high drama the likes of which our tiny eight-year-old minds had never seen before! We were gasping with every twist.
Then we finished the book. That was it… for a while.
My parents joined a “small group” with people from our church. If you’re not familiar, a small group is similar to a Bible study, but a bit more broad, with a focus on fostering community between the members. In our small group, the parents would tote us kids along. We would have snacks and say hello to our parents’ friends, but once the meeting started, we would be shooed off to another room where one of the older kids would babysit us.
Somewhere along the line, I discovered that our host, Mrs. Richetti, was a teacher who had loads of old classroom copies sitting in her house, and that she was fine with me borrowing them. This included an entire row full of Ella Enchanted. So I took a copy home with me.
I read it once. I read it twice. Soon enough, it became my go-to book whenever I was bored. I was especially obsessed with the part where Ella writes a letter to Char purposely trying to make him hate her. I would mentally rewrite that scene so that they could end up together sooner without her lying to him. I couldn’t bear their love being snatched away from them so soon after Char’s confession.
I discovered more of Gail Carson Levine’s books after that: Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Ever, and The Princess Tales series. But I would always, always go back to Ella Enchanted. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but I would be surprised if it were less than one hundred. I have two copies. One is completely in tatters, and the other is also well-loved. I was never one to mistreat my books, either.
What is it about this book that enchanted me so? When it comes down to it, it was Ella. She was everything I wanted to be: smart, funny, kind, and independent. She went on adventures. She was strong and was able to take care of herself in dangerous and heartbreaking situations. I liked Prince Char, of course, as well as Mandy the fairy godmother and Ella’s friend Areida. But it was Ella who encapsulated the hero I dreamt of being. Her smile on the front cover made her look like she knew something I didn’t.
Looking back, this is extremely characteristic of me at that age. I was transfixed by teenage girls and young women. At the small group, when a girl named Krystal babysat us, I was angelic as could be. I wanted to be just like her when I was older, and I even sent her letters when she moved away. When one of the Richetti boys babysat, though, I became a total maniac. I was like that with everything. No one could gain my attention and respect more easily than a “young and pretty and nice!” woman. When it came to guys, I was more in the “pulling pigtails” stage.
Isn’t that the whole shtick with Disney princesses, too? There’s always a prince, yes, but it’s the princesses that we love and remember.
For me, Ella Enchanted was the gateway into not only loving books, but thinking about them, talking about them, and theorizing about them. As I got older, books became one of the main ways I related to my friends. In middle school we would play pretend games based on our favorite books, and even into high school we would talk about Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and yes, briefly, Twilight.
How did you get into reading? Was there a particular book that sucked you into it? Tell me in the comments!
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