A letter to the reader from Gail Carson Levine
Ella Enchanted ’s twenty-fifth birthday sent me scrambling for mementos of the book’s babyhood. Alas, I tend to accidentally throw out what’s precious and keep what’s worthless, but I’ve found a few relics here and there.
For example, I discovered this unpublished beginning:
I’ve been told that I cried inconsolably throughout my first hour of life.
That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me. She only cast the spell because she wanted Mother to have an easy time raising me.
My tears were her inspiration. Shaking her head sympathetically at Mother, the fairy touched my nose. “My gift to Ella is obedience. She will always be obedient. Now stop crying, child.”
I bet you recognized the parts I kept, the bits I cut, and the way I rearranged the sentences. The Lucinda in the published version is worse than this one—because Lady Eleanor’s comfort wouldn’t occur to her.
When HarperCollins accepted my manuscript, the title I’d given it was Ella. Initially, I had called it Charmont and Ella when I thought that Char would have an even more important part in the story than he wound up with—though he is crucial. The good people at HarperCollins, who wanted the best for the book, believed the title could be improved and asked me to list some possibilities. In the deep archives of my computer files, I found my list. Ella Enchanted isn’t on it, though Enchanted Ella is, and of course the words were simply reversed. Here are a few of my other ideas: Spellbound!, which happens also to be the title of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller; Ella, You Must!; Ella’s Curse; Ella of Frell; Tales of an Obedient Daughter; and The Fairy’s Gift. At this late date, do you wish one of the others had won out?
About two years before the manuscript was considered by HarperCollins, I sent it (by snail mail, the only option in those antediluvian days) to my now agent, hoping she’d take it (and me) on. I had an inkling she would when she called me asking desperately where page 222 was—I had left it out of the package by mistake. Ginger Knowlton has been my agent ever since, so we’re having our twenty-seventh anniversary this year, which I understand is traditionally commemorated with sculpture—one by Agulen, maybe.
Before Ella Enchanted was accepted, every story I wrote (mostly picture books) had been rejected—for nine years! Ella Enchanted as a manuscript was rejected only once, and I can’t find the letter to share, but later, after publication, it was rejected for a British edition, and I do have that letter, which is critical of both the plot and the message. The letter writer said this: “I just don’t believe that it will appeal to a ten-year-old.”
Ha! And it was later accepted by a different British publisher.
The day Ginger called me to say that HarperCollins wanted the manuscript, I had to leave my job for a few minutes just to breathe. I worked near the southern tip of Manhattan and walked to the harbor to wave at the Statue of Liberty and feel the sea breeze, a wind of possibility.
Naturally, I didn’t expect the reception Ella Enchanted was going to get. My hope was that I’d write more books and some of them would be published too. That the Newbery Honor and a movie lay ahead was unimaginable.
Those were great joys. Such recognition! And they made other joys possible.
Before Ella Enchanted was published, I never used my maiden name. I was just Gail Levine. I wedged Carson in, thinking that some childhood friends I’d lost track of might find me, and several did: Miriam, whom I met on our first day in kindergarten; Ruth, who moved to Canada as a young adult; Michael, who lived in the same apartment building as I did when we were kids; Claudia, who became a reporter at the New York Times; and Nina, who became a violinist and a glass artist. A few years ago, Miriam, Ruth, Nina, and I met in our old neighborhood—Manhattan’s Washington Heights—to reconnect and visit old haunts.
Of the many delights of the day, one was a surprise. We stopped at the neighborhood public library, high on the list of my favorite childhood spots. Back then, I’d stagger home, dripping (and picking up) books. More than the candy store on Broadway, the library got most of my allowance—in late fines. And now, there, in the children’s section, were books I’d written, including Ella Enchanted. I wished I could conjure up my childhood self and tell her. Other mountaintop experiences: globetrotting and US-trotting to talk to kids about my books and writing and reading, and learning geography as I go; starting my summer writing workshop for kids in Brewster, New York, where I live, which has been running for twenty years; hearing from children and, lately, a few former children. (Some of these former children have—can you believe it?—named their babies Ella because of my book. Please tell me if you’ve named anyone Gail!)
Even at my age, I hope to bring you many more books. Thank you for celebrating this one—Ella Enchanted— with me!
As the giants say, Aiiiee ooo (howl) bek aaau! I miss you already!
Gail Carson Levine
About Gail Carson Levine:
Gail Carson Levine‘s first book for children, Ella Enchanted, was a Newbery Honor Book. Levine’s other books include Ever, a New York Times bestseller; Fairest, a Best Book of the Year for Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, and a New York Times bestseller; Dave at Night, an ALA Notable Book and Best Book for Young Adults; The Wish; The Two Princesses of Bamarre; A Tale of Two Castles; and the six Princess Tales books. She is also the author of the nonfiction books Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly and Writer to Writer: From Think to Ink, as well as the picture books Betsy Who Cried Wolf and Betsy Red Hoodie. Gail Carson Levine and her husband, David, live in a two-centuries-old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley of New York State.