The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

Revisting Ella Sets Sail July 10, 2010

Several months ago, I gave two thumbs and several other fingers down on the latest Ella book. I felt like this installation of the little elephant’s adventures went awry, depicting her character as too foolhardy and rash to fit what the previous books had established.

After several rereadings, I’ve changed my mind.

In the first three books, Ella’s signature, lucky red hat comes in handy at the most desperate of moments to save the day. It’s a kind of talisman from her grandmother that supports an innate pluckiness that helps Ella overcome her shyness and supports her desire to help others.

Ella Sets Sail is different. It’s a story about what “lucky” means. And that meaning turns out to be much more complex here than I’d initially understood. The book questions Ella’s assumptions – and ours, as readers – about the element of luck inherent in the red hat – or in anything.

This is clear when Ella, trying to rescue the hat from stormy waters, uses it as a sail for the boat she’s borrowed in order to save it – the weather storms, and she ties the red hat up as a sail – “It’s never failed me before,” she says, with confidence.

But it does fail her. It comes undone from the boat and is lost. Then she, too, is lost, on an unknown island. It only comes back to her when a fisherman finds it in his net and gives it to his wife, who has taken Ella in. By the time Ella returns home, intact and reunited with the red hat, she feels lucky again – to have survived and to have made new friends with the fisher family.

At first, I didn’t appreciate this story line, because the motivations that led Ella into her adventures were not stemming from wanting to help put on a show or deliver a cake or save a bully – the plotlines of the other books. She was just riskily going after the hat.

The thing is, luck (“is not a lady”?!) in the form of the hat is – of course – fickle. And – not always apparent. The hat doesn’t save the day in the story. It’s actually completely random that Ella survives. Its loss leads her to risk her life and then to discover new friends – she calls herself unlucky the whole way through – and can only appreciate her gains at the end.

My own recent job search has felt much like a relationship with a red hat. One minute I thought I was going to get a job – the next, I didn’t. I felt tremendously unlucky – even cursed. Later, when I got an even better job, I found myself so glad I didn’t get that first job, which wouldn’t have paid enough at all.

The point is that luck is a trickster, and it’s about happenstance – not a sure thing. Which is why we worship it so – it’s not an act of god or an innate quality of an object that brings it – it just happens for no reason at all. Sometimes, it’s magical and transformative and seemingly miraculous. But sometimes, our lives involve loss – loss that may or may not result in anything found – though, more often than not, whatever we experience, however hard, offers us something to find in ourselves.

I think it’s one of the hardest things for us humans to wrap our heads around – that life is not only something we can’t totally control, but circumstances are also not scripted or planned or controlled by other outside forces, either. We live on stories that come into being from an author’s creative vision – it feels strange to think our lives are not similarly mapped. When things don’t go our way, we feel personally punished or responsible, when really, things just happen. Or don’t. And we just have to ride the waves.

Ella Sets Sail now feels like a symbolic story that resonates with my struggles to comprehend and accept the bad luck of winds and storms that have caused so much strife. “I am lucky,” says Ella, at the end of the story. The lucky red hat didn’t come to the rescue – her luck is not based on the hat or on her being special. She’s just filled with gratitude for what happened – for being alive, for finding friends, for what is. The fact that she is there is enough to warrant her sense of luckiness and – dare I say, being blessed.

A good thing for all of us to have a sense of – whether or not things go as we want them to. We can’t always determine what circumstances are lucky or not – and as contexts change, how we view events can change, as well. Luck is not about the events – it’s a state of being.

And I feel lucky to have found this other reading of what is turning out to be one of my favorite children’s books.

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