Susan Jeffers’ Gift

Cinderella – Charles Perrault, retold by Amy Ehrlich, illustrated by Susan Jeffers, Dutton Children’s Books, 2004, (originally published by Dial Books for Young Readers, 1985)


Artist and author Susan Jeffers died on January 22 of this year.  Her graceful and sophisticated illustrations accompanied both her own written works and books by other authors, including Rosemary Wells, Margaret Wise Brown, Robert Frost, and Chief Seattle.  Her pen and ink dye drawings for a version of Perrault’s Cinderella, retold by Amy Ehrlich, are evidence of both her immersion in classical illustration style and her own unique sensibility.  This love letter to fairy tales presents a young heroine whose beauty and goodness are manifest in every detail and stroke of color.

The cover of Cinderella shows a serious girl with a bird on her shoulder. Her features are elegant and natural, and her expression implies that adversity will not keep her down for long.  Jeffers’ scenes of Cinderella as an exploited drudge, surrounded by nasty stepsisters and mother, keep their facial expressions to a minimum.  Cinderella frowns as, barefoot, she sweeps the stairs, while one lavishly dressed stepsister climbs them, turning her head towards Cinderella with disdain.  In a kitchen full of shining copper pots, Cinderella sits at the hearth, her hands folded as in a classic portrait.  Understatement is Jeffers’ style here.  When the fairy godmother shows up to rescue her, Jeffers uses black and white lines and cross- hatching to draw the lively animals whose metamorphosis enables the girl to attend the grand ball.


The fairy godmother’s dress and wings are a sky blue, and the pumpkin-turned-coach is a deep and royal maroon. On every page, children recognize the familiar elements of the story, yet each character in the cast brings something new.  The prince and Cinderella dance at the ball, he in his gold crown, and she with a dress decorated with live white birds, who also sit atop her hair.  If the prince’s crown is precious metal, hers is a gift of nature.  In the background, guests whisper to one another in astonishment, a thoroughly believable response to Cinderella’s otherworldly glamour.


When Cinderella races down the palace steps and loses her slipper, she looks aghast, and when the king’s courtiers begin a community try-on to find the shoe’s owner, all the wealthy young women look faintly ridiculous in their voluminous and brightly colored gowns.  No matter what, that slipper will not fit. When the courtiers ride up to Cinderella’s house on black horses, only one animal has red ribbons tied in its mane.  The fairy godmother reappears to supervise the trying of the shoe on the improbable Cinderella, now once more a serving girl.  Jeffers’ subtle transformations of color end the book with Cinderella in wedding white among a procession of noblemen in red and gold.  Her fairy godmother hovers in the back, and the other women of the court are faint outlines of watching the ending which no one could have predicted.  Jeffers’ Cinderella embodies the traditional story of elevation over unfair circumstance and cruelty, visually narrated through her radiant art.


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