Ella's Big Chance by Shirley Hughes

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Hughes, Shirley.  2003.  ELLA’S BIG CHANCE:  A JAZZ-AGE CINDERELLA.  New York:  Simon & Schuster.  ISBN:  0-689-87399-9.

Versions of the Cinderella story exist in almost every culture and have inspired everything from a Jerry Lewis movie in the 1950s to an Adam Ant music video in the 1980s.  British author and illustrator, Shirley Hughes, manages to add a new twist to an old tale in Ella’s Big Chance:  A Jazz Age Cinderella. "Hughes comes up with a winner. She accomplishes this with illustrations that dazzle and text that sings out the story."

Hughes sets her story in the 1920s and makes her heroine, Ella, a dressmaker who works in her widowed father’s shop creating beautiful gowns for rich women.  Her happy world is shattered when her father marries Madam Renee, who moves in with her two daughters, Ruby and Pearl.  Ella is banished to the basement, along with her old gray cat.  Buttons, who is the doorman/delivery boy at the dress shop, is Ella’s friend and visits her basement to play his guitar and sing to her in an effort to lift her spirits.

The story returns to its roots when the family are invited to a ball given in honor of the Duke of Arc.  After creating beautiful gowns for her stepsisters to wear to the ball, Ella is not allowed to attend.  Buttons again tries to cheer Ella by making a bacon and egg dinner for her, but when she goes to get the milk from the doorstep she encounters a strange woman with an umbrella who claims to be her Fairy Godmother.  Updating the old tale, the Fairy Godmother turns Button’s bicycle into a limousine, the cat into a chauffeur and creates a crystal covered 1920s dream gown for Ella to wear.  Of course, no Cinderella story would be complete without the glass slippers and Ella receives a pair of these unique shoes.  And, as always, Ella receives the warning from her Fairy Godmother that the magic will only last until midnight.

Of course, Ella is the belle of the ball and the handsome Duke falls madly in love with her.  She is having such a wonderful time that she loses track of time, but when the clock begins to strike midnight, she comes to her senses and leaves in such a hurry that she loses one of her glass slippers.  The limousine, chauffeur and dress change back, but somehow the glass slipper remains and she puts it in her pocket and returns home.

The Duke is so smitten by the mysterious beauty that he searches the country for the woman who fits the glass slipper.  At Mr. Cinders’, Ruby and Pearl try their best to fit into the slipper, but to no avail.  The Duke spies Ella and asks her to try on the slipper.  He is ecstatic when the slipper fits and proposes to her.  Instead of marrying the Duke and living happily ever after as in the original tale, Ella realizes that it is Buttons she loves and they ride off on his bicycle (with the cat) to open their own dress shop.  Madame Renee tries to convince the Duke to marry one of her daughters, but he chooses to take off “in his private airplane to explore the South American jungle and recover from his broken heart.”  

Shirley Hughes won her second Kate Greenaway Medal for her illustrations in this book.  The art deco elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies inspired Hughes’ illustrations:  “They were black and white but the photography was fabulous. I wanted to recreate some of the pure visual bliss of those glamorous art Deco sets with their highly reflective surfaces.”  Her dress designs were inspired by the couture fashions of the twenties by Doucet, Poiret, and Patou.

This is a gorgeous book and a unique retelling of the Cinderella tale.  Hughes’ Ella is a plump redhead with two waifish stepsisters and yet it is Ella who ends up with not one but two suitors.  Ella is also a practical and level-headed girl who chooses to make her own way in her own dress shop and marry a man for his heart rather than his wallet.  In the last line of the book, the Fairy Godmother has seen Ella and Buttons (and the cat) ride away and she is “smiling a secret smile.” Readers will also be “smiling a secret smile” when they finish Ella’s Big Chance.

Works cited:
Press Release by the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards, “Shirley Hughes: The CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal Winner 2003,” http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press/pres_green_back_04.htm,  accessed January 18, 2006. 

Children's Literature Website http://www.childrenslit.com/th_cinderella.html accessed January 18, 2006.

By Monica Wood