I have to admit that the 1950’s animated version of Cinderella was one of my favorite movies as a little girl. I could probably still sing every song. I honestly don’t know exactly what I liked about it. It might have been the mice. Anyway, I don’t think I will ever be able to watch the movie in the same way again after reading Kalynn Bayron’s new book Cinderella is Dead. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Great books can inspire us to view media with a critical lens and this is definitely a great book.
Cinderella is not the main character in Cinderella is Dead. In fact, the book takes place 200 years after her death. Her story, however, plays an inescapable role in the world depicted in this book. King Manford of Mersailles still holds an annual ball which all the young ladies must attend. At this ball, men choose their brides. If a young woman has not been chosen after three balls, she is “forfeit” and must leave her family and friends behind. Of course, being chosen as a bride is not always the better option. Especially for young women with violent husbands or young women who do not want husbands at all.
Sophia wants to find her happily ever after with Erin, who she believes feels the same way about her. But Erin is much less willing to try to escape Mersailles. They have no guarantee that things will be better elsewhere. Sophia, though, refuses to be handed off as a prize to an undeserving suitor and flees. She is joined by Constance, a descendant of the “Ugly Stepsisters” and is schooled in the real story of Cinderella; a very different version than the one she had been forced to read over and over again. On their journey together to meet the fairy godmother and stop King Manford, Sophia and Constance develop a deep connection to one another. It really couldn’t be a Cinderella story without some romance.
Mersailles is a brutal world and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this text for students in the upper elementary grades who might be reading different versions of the Cinderella story. Of course, the Brothers Grimm version isn’t exactly Disney material either. Bayron does an excellent job of contrasting the traditional Cinderella story with the one that she has created for Cinderella is Dead, and readers in high school might find a dive into the gender issues of traditional fairy tales to be a fascinating quest. Another one of the many fabulous elements of the book is that Sophia is a Black heroine in a book that does not explicitly address race. As Nic Stone wrote in an opinion piece for Cosmopolitan, “I can’t help but wonder how different the world would look if we’d all grown up seeing Black people do the stuff white people did in books.”
There have been many books that have presented an alternative view of fairy tales. What is special about Bayron’s work is that it looks at the repercussions that these tales can have centuries after they are originally told. Cinderella is Dead might be fiction, but there are certainly elements of Mersailles in current society. Fairy tales have been part of our shared experiences for generations. Books like Cinderella is Dead help us to question the lessons we take from repeated exposures to traditional fairy tales and to read more critically in general.
Diversity 10: I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.
Action 20: I will join with diverse people to plan and carry out collective action against exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, and we will be thoughtful and creative in our actions in order to achieve our goals.
RL.2- Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
RL.3- Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.
RL.9- Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).