Monday, March 23, 2015

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella (Book Review)

This past Friday, we treated ourselves to a rare event: a movie in the theater. My daughter's love of Cinderella and my love of Kenneth Branagh directed films, not to mention my upcoming birthday, all combined to compel the family to the new Disney version of the classic fairy-tale. It was a stunningly lovely movie, so very well-made, and I hope to still find time to write a real review! (The short version: if you love fairy-tales, see it. If you love Kenneth Branagh movies, see it.)

Seeing the familiar story play out got me thinking about the film's source material, not only the 1950 Disney animated film but the classic Perrault and Grimm versions. That got me thinking about other versions of the tale too, which took me into my book review archives. I dug up a review I wrote over seven years ago and decided to dust it off and give it a rewrite.

Without further ado, here's my slightly revamped review of Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella, a beautiful picture book written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Julie Paschkis. It was published in 2007 by Henry Holt.


Almost everyone knows and loves the story of Cinderella. We can easily sketch the tale because we know its images and contours so well. There's poor lonely Cinderella, abused by stepmother and stepsisters, clad in rags and sweeping up the ashes, overworked almost to death. Look! Here comes her fairy godmother! Away Cinderella rolls to the ball in her pumpkin coach, glass slippers on her feet. She loses one at the stroke of midnight, but her beloved prince picks it up and vows to find the woman who has lost that tiny sparkling shoe and stolen his heart in the bargain. And so he does find her. The stepsisters are aghast. Wedding bells ring. Happily ever after.

Am I close? Is that just about the way you know and remember it?

Maybe...or maybe not.

What author Paul Fleischman has given us in the lovely and unusual picture book Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal is not just a familiar re-telling of Cinderella as many of us in the West have growing up hearing it told. His Cinderella has gone global. Fleischman's fascination with the Cinderella story led him to look for it in other cultures than our own. What he discovered was that people the world over love to tell this story. And while the main shape remains the same, the details change in wonderful ways from culture to culture. His book is an attempt to weave those varied details together into one rich tapestry. He calls it "a worldwide Cinderella."

Fleishman chooses to tell the worldwide Cinderella as one story, with the different versions woven together. An easier route, less creatively challenging to author and reader, might have been to simply tell the story several times over and let the versions stand side by side for comparison. Instead, Fleischman has woven various cultural strands together and attempted to tell one coherent story.

He is helped in this task by the vibrantly colored gouache paintings of illustrator Julie Paschkis. Her illustrations have a definite "folk art" feel. The main pictures and text are bordered but appear on colorful, busy backgrounds of motifs and patterns that arise in the story. The backgrounds reminded me of batik cloths or other bright textiles.  If you look carefully at each background, you will see the name of a country printed. It almost looks like a little tag "sewed" into the backdrop. That little tag lets you know, on each page, what country's folk-tale tradition is being pulled on for the particular details.

So you move from the way the story is told in Mexico (where the potential stepmother appears kind at first, offering sweets like pan dulce for little Cinderella to eat) to the story as told in Korea  (where poor Cinderella learns what a hard taskmaster her new stepmother can be, and has to spend long days weeding in the rice fields) and then on to Iraq (where Cinderella remembers how she'd wanted her father to remarry and laments "I picked up the scorpion with my own hand").

Although the story often devotes one whole page or a two-page spread to a certain country's telling, there are some pages on which you shift cultures more rapidly. This is set off visually by background color changes, and by setting the text off in smaller boxes (and always with the name of the country near the appropriate text, embedded in the background). The rapid shift is a fun way for the author/compiler to pile up a lot of details and to quickly show readers the plethora of storytelling choices available when one reaches important parts of the story. For instance, when it's time for Cinderella to be clothed in something beautiful for the ball, you might be expecting a fairy godmother, but you won't find one here. In Laos, she simply reaches into her mother's sewing basket. In Russia, she finds clothing in a hole in a birch tree. In Indonesia, a crocodile swims up to her, and in its mouth was a sarong made of gold... or if you prefer the Chinese and Japanese versions, presented immediately afterwards, a cloak sewn of kingfisher feathers or a kimono red as sunset.

It's fun to see the different ways people around the world tell one story. The pages where the details come quickest remind me of those old "choose your own adventure" books! You and your young reader may find yourself wondering about the missing details you don’t hear from the different cultural versions, which might inspire you to go looking.

Another strength: the book introduces different cultural traditions and expressions, especially from cultures that we're not as familiar with in the West. The only nods to North America are the few places where the story moves into a folk telling from Appalachia. It’s an intriguing way to illustrate how different places in the world have different ways of telling stories, different expressions, and different ideas of what's beautiful to wear or delicious to eat, as the varied menu at the  wedding feast near the book's end so amply illustrates.

The literal jumping from place to place and the piling up of different cultural details is both the book's strength and a potential weakness. The story doesn't quite work as one coherent story. There's still a rags to riches storyline and we get to the happy ending, but Cinderella (never named in the actual text, just the title) changes so rapidly in the text and in the accompanying illustrations. As she morphs from culture to culture, it might present a visual and creative challenge to very young readers or listeners, who could struggle to keep up or to comprehend all the changes. For that reason, I think I would recommend the book primarily for children 7 and up, who will likely have an easier time grasping the concept and probably have a deeper interest in comparing the different versions.

As an adult with a real love of fairy-tales, I found this weaving of global tellings of Cinderella quite enchanting. If you know a child who loves fairy-tales, Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal could be a lovely way to introduce them to the way stories are told and changed as they move from culture to culture.

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