The latest in a series of posts on classic children’s picture books
Walt Disney’s Cinderella: A Little Golden Book Classic. Story adapted by Jane Werner. Illustrated by Retta Scott Worcester. Golden Books, 24 pp., $2.99.
By Janice Harayda
For several decades, the story of Cinderella has been anything but a Cinderella story. Scholars have attacked it for promoting female passivity, for giving stepmothers a bad name, and for equating beauty with virtue: The pretty Cinderella is good and her ugly stepsisters are bad. I read a critique that accused it of promoting capitalist values because – at least in the Disney the version, the one most familiar today — Cinderella is rewarded for the hard work of scrubbing floors and churning butter, as though we’d want the kids to read books where characters were rewarded for sloth.
There’s some truth to the all complaints. Variations on Cinderella have existed for centuries or more, and they typically reflect ideals of an earlier time. But if I had children, I’d want them to know this tale of a mistreated girl who marries a king’s son, and not just because it’s a defining myth of our age. The case against Cinderella was stronger in the past. If the story is one of female passivity — that of a girl rescued by a prince — it used to reflect the expectations of society as a whole.
Those assumptions have changed. Girls today see more countervailing influences to Cinderella — the tortured marriage of Charles and Diana showed us all what can happen when you marry a prince — so there seems to be less harm in reading it. There are also more benefits when surveys of cultural literacy have shown that children are increasingly growing up without understanding the ideas that have shaped civilizations – not just fairy tales but myths, legends, fables, Bible stories, and more.
As a child, I loved an oversized tie-in edition to the 1950 animated Disney musical Cinderella — “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”! – and read it until its corrugated pop-up pumpkin fell off. A few weeks ago, I was startled to find Walt Disney’s Cinderella in a Little Golden Book Classic format in the new-children’s-books section of a good bookstore. No pop-up pumpkin, but everything else is identical. No less surprising is that the Little Golden Book Classic is better than many recent editions, including some others from Disney, in part because its cover shows Cinderella in rags near a brick fireplace, which makes the meaning of the title clear right away. Some versions have a princess on the cover that dilutes the message and make the book look like just another princess fantasy, instead of the mother lode.
I’m sure that at the age of seven, I liked my Disney version partly because its Cinderella has blond hair and blue-green eyes like me (which plays into stereotypes of the fair-haired as virtuous, given that one of her stepsisters has black hair and another red). But today you can find a United Nations of Cinderella stories at bookstores and libraries, and they have title characters of varied ancestry: Jewish, Persian, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Caribbean, Hispanic, Cambodian, Egyptian, Alaskan, Hmong. And if some of these still seem to be a font of stereotypes, they make clear it would be more accurate to call Cinderella something else: an archetype who has never lost her appeal.
Best line: Some modern versions of Cinderella don’t explain how the title character got her name. The Little Golden Book Classic does: “But alas! The kindly gentleman soon died. And his second wife was harsh and cold to her lovely stepdaughter. She cared only for her two ugly stepdaughters.
“Everyone called the stepdaughter Cinderella now since she sat by the cinders to keep warm as she worked hard, dressed only in rags.”
Worst line: Cinderella had “a puppy named Bruno” before her father died. The name “Bruno” is odd in context. And the dog probably shouldn’t have a name at all, because it’s used only twice, and an old horse (which becomes a coachman) and the mice (which turn into horses) don’t have names.
Listen to the song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Walt Disney’s Cinderella on a site that doesn’t include a film clip from the movie. You can also hear it on YouTube sites that include a clip, but these may not be legal.
Other classic picture books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Millions of Cats, Madeline, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Where the Wild Things Are, The Backward Day, Horton Hatches the Egg, The Story of Ferdinand and Flat Stanley.