Rediscovering the Many Different Versions of Cinderella (and Other Tales)

Eliza Clark
March 14, 2011

One of the great delights of being the parent of a preschooler is getting to read aloud to your child and rediscovering all of the classic childhood stories.  And one of the somewhat tiresome aspects of being the parent of a preschooler is getting badgered into reading and rereading their favorite stories over and over and over again.

As we've written previously, rereading stories is an important way to help children develop their listening and pre-reading skills.  We're all for it!  But this week, we're talking about taking the next step in encouraging our kids' comprehension skills. 

So when your four-year-old would-be princess demands the 104th rereading of her favorite Cinderella book, maybe it's time to try something new.  Get yourselves forthwith to a good children's library, and have a look at the many different versions of the ancient Cinderella story that you are sure to find on its shelves.

New and different versions of the same story offer a special set of pleasures and rewards for kids and parents alike.  It's a marvel to see how varied the human imagination really is, even when confined to reinterpreting a well-known plot. For older preschoolers and elementary school kids, comparing the pictures, storyline variations, settings and language is a fascinating process. It's also an invaluable exercise in reading comprehension. When a Cinderella devotee gets her little hands on a new version of the tale, it takes very little prompting to get her started noticing contrasts and making interpretations. The Disney version may remain her first love, but she'll quickly see that Cinderella can be many different princesses to many different preschoolers.

To get our youngest students of comparative literature started, we're recommending a few of our favorite alternatives to the movie we all know and love (or love to hate as the case may be). 

The story of Cinderella goes way back, all the way to ancient Egypt, scholars say. So it seems fitting to begin our reading list with The Egyptian Cinderella written by Shirley Climo, illustrated by Ruth Heller). The heroine, named Rhodopis, is a Greek slave girl who is shunned by Egyptian servant girls but becomes the wife of the Pharaoh Amasis through the intervention of a falcon who snatches one of her sandals and drops it in the Pharaoh's lap. Another ancient version,Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China, involves a fish as fairy godmother and is exquisitely retold and pictured in this book by Ai-Ling Louie and Ed Young.

The French 17th century Cendrillon introduced the pumpkin and glass slipper that have been with us ever since. (We're skipping right over the rather grim 19th century version by the Grimm brothers that involves the mean sisters cutting their heels and toes off to try to fit the slipper.) This take on the tale has received so many beautiful renditions that it's difficult to choose only a few -- but we do so with pleasure nonetheless.  Marcia Brown's wonderful translation of Charles Perrault's classic French version, with fanciful, dreamy illustrations won the Caldecott Medal in 1955, and still enchants.  Cinderella connoisseurs will notice that here she attends two balls instead of one, and also that before touching it with her magic wand, the fairy godmother "scooped the pumpkin all out, leaving only the rind."  Of course!  These are the kinds of details that the little ones love -- why didn't the godmother in the movie do that?  K.Y. Craft's 2000 version is the most sumptuous we know, the illustrations drawing on 17th- and 18th-century period costumes and interiors, and the story incorporating bits from the German version including a bird who turns into the fairy.  Birds are at the center of Nancy Willard and Jane Dyer's whimsical retelling from the point of view of two magpies who make Cinderella a dress for the ball, only to watch her stepsisters tear it to pieces.  Anyone who knows Jane Dyer's animal watercolors from Time for Bed will want to get their hands on Cinderella's dress.  Finally, we must give a bit of extra credit to Disney for recently publishing Mary Blair's gorgeous original storyboards for the movie along with a poignant, romantic retelling by Cynthia Rylant.

Cinderella is about as sentimental as a story can be, but humorists and subversives have had their way with it too. James Marshall brings his inimitable style to create a Cinderella who can't exactly be called beautiful, but certainly demonstrates the rewards of hard work and good character.  Ellen Jackson's Cinder Edna is a full-on spoof of the classic, and a marvelous story in its own right about Cinder Ella's neighbor who rides a bus and wears loafers to the ball, but nonetheless finds the prince who is just right for her.

If you just can't get enough of Cinderella, we point you to a few other compelling cross-cultural versions such the Algonquin tale of The Rough-Face Girl, Cendrillon: A Carribbean Cinderella, and Shirley Climo's The Korean Cinderella and The Persian Cinderella.

But if, on the other hand, you've had about all you can take of slippers, pumpkins and fairy godmothers, you can take refuge in Peggy Orenstein's provocative new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.  (More on this another day!)

In the meantime, for the rest of this week and next, we'll continue the theme of comparative fairytales, and explore alternative versions of favorite stories like Rapunzel, The Three Little Pigs, The Lion and the Mouse, The Princess and the Frog, and others.  Delving deeply into our preschoolers' obsessions can turn into a fascinating reading project. Give it a try, and let us know what you think!


From the Parents

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