Anxiety made me a rule-follower. It made a kindergarten teacher voice concern to my parents. Was I being punished at home for small mistakes? (“No!” my parents cried. “She’s just always been like that!”) In second grade, it made me hyperventilate in a school hallway, when I realized I didn’t have a permission slip… that wasn’t due until the next day.
Reading was safe because books didn’t expect anything from me. I could pick them up and put them down. I read them; they didn’t read me back. I wasn’t evaluated, couldn’t fail.
So I was already a reader when Ella Enchanted came out. But I think it made me a for-sure, lifelong reader. Ella is fairy-cursed with compulsory obedience. When she doesn’t obey, she suffers physical symptoms. I knew that curse! I HAD it! The book also contained things I loved–a medieval-ish setting, a mostly ordinary girl who is special not because of powers but because of her own humor and grit and will. And yes, a prince, who is charming in his solemnity and his earnest efforts and the way silliness brings him joy.
Ella works within her curse. She’s bright and determined; she acquires skills and uses them. She loves learning about other people. Still, the curse does genuinely complicate her life. It was the first time I’d seen that happen on the page.
I re-read the book every so often, and it always whisks me away all over again.
(Although, I’d like to mention that I now notice the text villainizing fatness, which frankly probably reinforced wrongful and damaging ideas I had about my body/eating at age eleven.) Even though I know what happens, Ella Enchanted is my fairy-made book: every time I open it, it holds a little something new.
In the end–20 years later spoiler–Ella breaks her curse by sacrificing her own happiness for the greater good. It’s a nice moment, one I enjoy re-reading. However, there’s nothing I can sacrifice that will make my anxiety disappear. I know because I’ve sacrificed all kinds of things in an effort to improve my health. Some of which have helped, certainly.
It’s okay, though. I’m still bright and deeply interested in my fellow humans. I seek learning and silliness with joy. When I do something wrong–real or completely imagined–I still experience it as physical suffering. I do have very difficult days, but I’m okay. I have tools and, like Ella herself, a trusted support system.
I’m okay enough with failing to face the rejection of publishing.
I’m okay with people reading my books and evaluating them. Sometimes I break rules when I see something I believe to be wrong. I have laughter, and I have love.
Happily enough ever after, you might say.
“These Words Matter” is a guest contribution segment. Learn more here.