EBOOK ‘CINDERELLA SPINDERELLA’ NEEDS MORE WORK TO DELIVER A BIGGER MULTICULTURAL PUNCH
By Renu Jain Chandarana @renujc
I’m always looking for new stories and books that I can read to my toddler daughter that reflect our South Asian culture, so when this e-book, “Cinderella Spinderella” by Marc Binder, came my way, I was really excited to share it with her.
In a recent press release it was stated, “Cinderella Spinderella uses e-book technology to allow each reader to customize the story so that his or her family can be reflected in the pictures. Is she Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, or from the Indian subcontinent? Children and parents can pick from 25 combinations.”
The book was even awarded the Bronze Moonbeam Children’s Award for Best Multicultural Ebook.
Having heard all this hype, I was thrilled that something unique like this existed!
Now, before I go on, I have to say that my daughter and I LOVE BOOKS. We read all the time – during meals (it’s a great distraction to get her to eat well!) and of course bed time. Since I’ve had my second daughter, who’s only a few months old, we’ve upped our book consumption. Whenever I nurse her, it becomes story time for my older one so she can have some of my attention too. I marvel at her love for new stories, and I feel so proud when she gives me her very astute commentary on what she’s reading. She absorbs so much more than I think she does.
So we sat down to read “Cinderella Spinderella” together. For a change, I was going to read her an e-book. We don’t own any e-readers at home and although we do have an Ipad, I decided to use my laptop instead. What a treat to find out that the Kindle has a free e-reader app for a Mac or PC! The book’s publisher, Light Publications, had a full explanation on it’s website on how to access the book for my Mac. Within just a few minutes, I had the story in front of us, and we started by clicking on the character of my daughter’s choice. Next, choose your Prince, and that’s it, time for your personalized story.
The story itself is extremely close to the original Cinderella, but I found there was one difficult concept I had to explain to my daughter – Cinderella in this story is physically disabled and in a wheelchair. After explaining what I could and reading through it once, I went back and changed the look of the characters again….and again…and to my surprise, barely anything changed in the story except the illustration of the character. I did notice the carriage that takes Cinderella to the Prince’s party changed (it wasn’t a pumpkin, it was a jackfruit or a watermelon or a beet depending on the character’s I chose). Wouldn’t you know it, my 3-year-old picked up on the fact that the story was EXACTLY THE SAME. “Mama, why are we reading this so many times?” she said!
I honestly thought by choosing the character that looked South Asian, I’d be reading a Cinderella story with a South Asian twist. Or by choosing the African looking character, or Asian looking character – the story would change significantly to reflect the culture. But going back to the promotional material, I realized, it’s just the look of Cinderella and the Prince that is different. I really wish there was more to it than that.
One of the taglines for the book is, “It doesn’t matter how you look, what matters is who you are.” – Fairy Godmother. Here’s the flaw. If it’s ‘who you are’ that counts, then why is it empowering to choose how the character looks? Who I am as a Canadian and Indian woman is so much more than my brown skin and Canadian accent. I love the concept of this book but I’m so conflicted about it’s message. When we were choosing the characters, there was very little difference between Summer – who I thought was South Asian, but could have been Hispanic, and Monsoon – who I also thought could be South Asian or Southeast Asian. One had brown skin, the other had darker brown skin. I suppose the act of choosing the character is empowering that’s where it ends. I was missing the cultural context to share with my daughter – this is the “who you are” aspect that the fairy godmother is referring to.
Moreover, I was confused as to why the book won an award in a ‘multicultural’ category. Regardless of which character you choose, her name is Eleanor, and she has two stepsisters, Griselda and Esmerelda. It would have been so amazing to see cultural nuances come to life every time we chose a new character. What if when we chose the South Asian looking character, her name would change to Madhu and she would be forced by her stepsisters, Kalika and Kalima to do their homework, drive them to the mall and make perfect rotis for them! I did notice the illustrations portray multicultural partygoers at the Prince’s ball.
Growing up, I have to be very honest, I never ever felt a void in my life when reading popular stories and the character was white with blonde hair and blue eyes. I didn’t need to have an Indian Cinderella, or a Gujarati Snow White. Then those stories wouldn’t be authentic.
What I did have was Amar Chitra Katha comic books, The Mahabharat, The Ramayan, and every other Hindu mythological story that was presented to me during my Hindi studies at the temple on Sundays. I guess I separated my Canadian life from my Indian life. I never yearned for a doll or a cartoon that looked like me….until now. Now that I’m a mom, I would love to expose my daughters to a strong female protagonist, with Indian characteristics such as humility, perseverance, bravery, courage, intelligence, faith, and beauty (amongst so many other positive qualities) within the context of an Indian-ified storyline.
I asked a few moms I know how they felt about seeing more characters like themselves in children’s literature and not surprisingly, they were all for it! My sister reminded me how fascinated we were with Disney’s The Jungle Book (based on a collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling’s.) The names of the animals were in Hindi and the story took place in India. It became relatable to us because not only were the characters brown-skinned, but also a familiar language was involved that pulled us in.
My sister-in-law said, “It was never in my reality that fairy tale characters would be anything other than white, so I never even thought about the injustice around that. But, now that it is being brought to my attention, I think it is fantastic to have our children see “hero’s” of all different ethnicities. It helps to reinforce the idea that we are all human beings, and regardless of what we look like, we are all connected and equal.” So nicely put.
All in all, my daughter and I thought the story was entertaining, if you take away the cultural context. The fact that it was an e-book using technology to resemble a ‘choose your own adventure’ was interactive and allowed us to use a laptop for reading instead of watching a video. I would like to read more by this author, I encourage him to take a step further and dive deeper into the meaning of female empowerment and multiculturalism.
To learn more about Cinderella Spinderella check out the website: cinderellaspinderella.com
We had a chance to connect with the author after this post was published and here’s what he had to say:
“Dear Ms. Chandarana, Thank you for your wonderful and honest review of Cinderella Spinderella.
I understand your confusion and concerns about the repetition in the book, and I’d like to offer an explanation. First off, I completely agree! If Steve and I had the time and resources of a large corporation, we probably would have made each version look very different.
BUT… From a technical point of view to make the book available on all the different platforms was a challenge with the existing one-story version. Believe it or not, in an era of huge files, ebooks still have limitations. The only way to optimize the book so that it would run on the oldest Kindle and the latest iPad was to pick one theme/story and stick to that. As it is, the ebook maxes out all the existing file sizes for ebook readers. From an Artistic Point of view, the evolution of this ebook was very much tied in to my experience as a story performer.
When I perform the story, I don’t describe Eleanor. I leave it to the reader’s imagination. When putting the story into print, I wanted to keep the experiences very similar to the performances — and the only thing that really changes there are the pumpkin/potato/jackfruit based on the season. I do agree that the Fairy Godmother’s line, “It doesn’t matter how you look” is a bit easy. I think she’s speaking what she believes, rather than the actual experience of say a Canadian Indian woman versus a black woman from Alabama or a White Woman from California, etc.
And I suppose if I’m honest, it’s the way I would want the world to be too, that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is, the story remains the same. I’m glad that you and your daughter enjoyed the book the first time, and I wish there was a way to frame it so that every time you read it again it is just as much fun. Again, I appreciate your honesty and review. -Mark Binder”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what characters you related to growing up and if you think it’s important to have a fairy princess (of Disney caliber) that resembles you (or your child). How might you have made this story more relatable?
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