The Cinderella Mommy

by Luanne

“Mommy, you can be Cinderella,” Marisha said.  She was five and holding up the Disney Cinderella tape a friend had given her.  “I’ll be the stepsister.”

We’d only been home for a few minutes.  I was hot and exhausted from a long day teaching and commuting back and forth.  Marisha was graduating from the university pre-school soon and would be starting kindergarten in the fall.  She had had the same long day and had sat in her car seat with the sun slanting in at her for the past hour, but she looked like she was raring to go. 

Distracted, I was thinking about what to make for dinner.  The wheeled suitcase I carried to campus was parked in my way, one of the wheels worn down, and I couldn’t get the thing to roll out of the way.  It was 30 x 24 x 11 inches of solid books.  “What?” I said, but my response was just automatic.  “This old suitcase!”

“Let’s play Cinderella.  You can be her.  You look like her.  I’ll be the stepsister.”  She looked earnest, as if this was the way things were.  Written in stone.

I snapped to attention. “Why do you think that, Pea?”

“Because you have blonde hair.  I have dark hair.  You look just like her when you wear your nightgown.”  My whole body felt as if it were deflating from hearing how she was processing the world around her.

Inside that big suitcase were all the books I carried each day to share with my students, future teachers.  I’d so carefully selected them from the best of what was currently available.  They included treasures like Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel, and The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.

Tar Beach

The Polar Express

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

These were all original stories, illustrated with cutting edge artwork.  But what wasn’t I sharing with Marisha and my students?

Marisha needed to see a more obvious antidote to the mainstream barrage she was subjected to at pre-school, at the homes of friends, even in our own home.  She needed other versions of Cinderella.  Why should Cinderella only be blonde?  There’s nothing inherently wrong with a blonde Cinderella.  But in our world, Cinderella can be found in all different guises—different races, different nationalities, sometimes she’s not even a young girl, but a boy or an orphaned animal or a sports team which comes from behind.

Even before Cinderella became a staple of pop culture and picture books, there were over 700 versions of Cinderella folk or fairy tales from around the world.  We started reading some of these stories at home, and I introduced my students to them from an anthology of Cinderella stories.  Quickly it became obvious that Marisha and my students (who realized what their students would want) wanted to see these other Cinderellas, and the only way to do that was to read them in picture book format.

I acquired some wonderful Cinderella books which were and are still widely available.  One of my favorites is Yeh-Shen, by Ai-Ling Louie.  This book represents the oldest of the Cinderella stories, a Chinese version which features a magical fish.  Another book I love is Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, a 1988 Caldecott Honor book, by John Steptoe.  This is an original story about two African sisters.  The book teaches kindness and compassion.  The Korean Cinderella, by Shirley Climo, was a must for Marisha, given her Korean heritage.  The gorgeous illustrations well represent traditional Korean clothing and art.   Over the years, so many more have been added to the list.

Today we are lucky to have a more diverse assortment of “princesses,” including Pocahontas, Tiana, Jasmine, and Mulan.  Correct me if I’m mistaken, but I think we could use a Latina princess.  Nevertheless, we still live in a culture where Disney’s Cinderella wields her influence and it’s nice to balance her with a variety of other Cinderellas who share certain story traits but mix it up in terms of looks and culture and national origin.


What are your favorite Cinderella picture books?


  1. Lisa DeNike Ercolano says:

    Another thought-provoking blog post, Luanne. My heart sank just reading about Marisha taking it for granted that you, the blonde, be Cinderella! But I love that you are drawing readers’ attention to some wonderful children’s books, including my daughter Olivia’s favorite (when she was small), “Tar Beach.” We also loved “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” and “Yeh-Shen.” I think it is imperative that all children (whether they are white or children of color) be exposed to heroes and heroines of different ethnicities and from different countries, where standards of “beauty” vary. Thanks for writing this.

  2. I enjoyed your blog post, Luanne. As you so ably illustrated, pop culture and literature have a profound effect on children. I’m glad you were able to offer that antidote –> for Marisha as well as for your students and, one hopes, their students.

  3. Carla McGill says:

    Luanne – What a wonderful mother you are. 🙂

  4. 😦

  5. Nina and I say emphatically: “The Rough-Face Girl” by Rafe Martin, illustrated by David Shannon. We LOVE it! In fact, we still read it aloud. (I kid you not.) And we enthusiastically second your votes for “Yeh-Shen” and “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.” Nina still reads those, too.

    • Lennie, I still have Rough-Face Girl 🙂 and LOVE it. There are conflicting reports on how accurate to the culture it is, but the point (besides the great story and beautiful illustrations) I believe are all the important issues (including beauty) it addresses. I used to bring it to class and one semester a student in my class who had been seriously burned as a child put a new perspective on it–one I can’t forget. She talked to the class about living in a children’s burn unit for a year. I love that Nina still reads these gorgeous books!!
      BTW, that you guys read it aloud doesn’t surprise me, especially with the acting talent between you.

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