My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There’s a richness to everything Shirley Hughes produces, and it’s this richness which comes to the forefront of Ella’s Big Chance. This, as the front cover, states is ‘a fairy tale retold’. It is a retelling of Cinderella, set in ‘the jazz-age’. And it is practically glowing with riches.
Cinderella is such an archetypal story that it needs very little precis. It is the story of a girl, her wicked stepmother and a night on the town that Cinderella will never forget.
In this story, we meet Ella, the daughter of Mr Cinders. The two of them run a dressmaking shop ‘in a quiet but elegant part of town’. There’s an air of faded gentility from the start as the sun eases through the windows to illustrate the shop – the colours, living, under the touch of Ella and her father.
Ella herself is something particularly glorious. Drawn as a sort of Gina Lollobrigida meets Sophia Loren hybrid both facially and physically, her hair close cropped into a wild bob, she’s an all too rare and incredibly beautiful creation. I loved her.
As ever in a Hughes book, there’s a deep awareness of time and the experience of the reader. She’s never selfish in her illustrations, there’s always some sort of – look at me – moment to every scene. The majority of the pages are constructed in a half and half scenario, a white block of text playing next to, or opposite a full colour image. What’s particularly interesting in these pages is that the majority of the text sections have a sort of ‘transitory’ image in pen and ink. These simple black and white moments carry a lot of the book until the ball, and they do so because of their elegance. They transition the reader from scene to scene, joining the story together in a sort of visual stitching. Hughes is very skilled at not letting you go once she has you.
When we reach the ball scene, which is something we’re always waiting for in a Cinderella story, it is not disappointing. Hughes goes for it and produces images that are just – richness. They are luscious and edible and dreamlike all at the same time. She balances the vivid intensity of the moment with human touches. When Ella arrives at the ball, walking down the stairs in her silver dress that is visually stunning, Hughes throws in moments all over the scene. A gentleman at the edge of the far page has eyes for nobody but Ella even though his partner is talking; a group of women stare in shock and distaste at this competitor, whilst another woman serene in her duties as host holds out her arm to greet Ella who pauses, so very briefly, at the stairs to close her eyes and savour the moment.
It’s worthwhile to note that in this book Hughes designed all of the dresses. So when you read it, remember this and note her use of colours and shapes. See how Ella in her black shift dress is the centre of the picture, always, linked by the black and white images that thread through this book and yet somehow, always in the shadows, her dress blurring into the darkness of the shop and the cellar. Watch the peacock nature of one of Ella’s step-sisters, posing in her vivid red dress, uncaring that she blocks up half of the image and steals focus from her sister. Look at the way Ella’s ball dress is conjured from the night and the stars and the silvery magic of her fair godmother.
Look a this book, and treasure it, and take your time over it. And then do it all over again. It’s a book that rewards slow, leisurely, indulgent reading.
(And it gives you the most perfect, perfect of conclusions).