After waving their parents off on a second honeymoon, Delia leaves to attend the party of the year and Declan comforts himself by going into his sister’s room and stripping out of his clothes to wear her dress. When Delia unexpectedly returns home, Declan is horrified, but Delia does not react in the way that Declan expects; instead, she offers fashion and make-up advice, transforming Declan into the beautiful Layla.
Rather than let Declan waste the opportunity to embrace his new identity, Delia convinces him to join her at Carter Aadenson’s party. Carter is not only Delia’s ex-boyfriend and the most popular boy in school, but also the object of Declan’s crush and until tonight, Declan has never had the courage to utter more than a few words to him.
Layla is introduced to Carter as Delia’s cousin who is visiting for a short time, but Carter is immediately entranced and the two flirt easily. Delia encourages Declan to continue exploring his gender fluidity and a whirlwind romance between Carter and Layla ensues, Declan’s attraction to Carter growing as their relationship develops. But when Layla ‘leaves’ and Declan has to return to school as himself, Declan struggles whether to admit everything to Carter.
My favorite genre in fiction is the fractured fairy tale and though Cinderella Boy is technically not a retelling, Kristina Meister does use fairy tale tropes and subverts them to challenge stereotypes within her story. During Carter and Layla’s first conversation, Layla states plainly that “Disney is so bad for young minds,” going on to say that:
“Disney says the prince is supposed to just ride around on his white horse scanning the horizon for a poor shoeless damsel who fits. That all that matters is meeting a pretty princess and spawning a bunch of dukes. And the damsel is supposed to wait to be found.”
Though Carter’s affectionate pet name for Layla is “Princess,” at no point does Declan allow his alter ego to conform, constantly challenging Carter’s arrogance and teenage boys’ preconceptions of how girls should be treated. The best example of this is the scene in which Carter, a group of his friends, and Layla are on their way to paintballing. It is here that Declan uses his knowledge of girls and his maturity to translate ‘girl-talk’ for the group of Carter’s teenage friends, Declan helping the boys to understand the cues girls at school are giving. However, for Declan, who is at that moment, acting as a girl himself, it does not come without confusion,
Was he appropriating female culture, or was it his culture too? Did he have the right to claim it? Delia would say yes, but she wasn’t the one living in both worlds uncertain where to tread to offend the fewest people.
After this quote from Cinderella Boy, I think it is important to note that even when dressed as Layla, Meister refers to the thoughts as “Declan’s.” When reading the story, I wasn’t sure that this felt correct, but in hindsight, I think this is Meister’s way of ensuring that we understand that Declan’s gender fluidity, at this point anyway, is about appearance; it does not change his thought processes.
When Declan returns to school as himself, Meister does not ignore his non binary identity. Yes, Declan is now dressed in ‘boy’ clothes, but with Delia’s help he discovers a fashion style that he can be comfortable in, allowing him to wear cat’s ears and whiskers if he wishes to! However, I also think that our understanding of Declan’s identity goes beyond the clothes he chooses to wear; he finds the confidence he gained as dressing as Layla to be her in his own skin. In doing so, Declan embraces the opportunities this brings with it, including being open about his sexuality and developing his friendship with Carter.
Whereas the relationship Carter had with Layla moved quickly, Carter’s romance with Declan is a slow-burn. Carter has always identified as being heterosexual, but his journey in Cinderella Boy is also about self acceptance and the realization that love can come in many different forms. The basis of the romance between Declan and Carter is rooted in trust and friendship, as well as their fight with the school for equality, and Meister draws upon all of the reader’s emotions as she tells this story.
When the LGBT+ club is banned from forming by the school’s headmaster because it is “unacceptable,” Carter is enraged, but it are his actions that follow which, as readers, we applaud. In my opinion, every school should have a Carter Aadenson, who becomes a voice for a marginalized group who are obviously being discriminated against. I love the way in which Meister builds this story thread, tying Carter and Declan together in their fight for justice, which climaxes at the school prom, in itself an emotional moment, complete with unexpected revelations.
Cinderella Boy is targeted perfectly towards Meister’s young adult audience, but remains thought provoking for older readers like myself. Meister not only explores romance and friendship, but relationships within families and her characters are vividly imagined, allowing the reader to form connections that last after the book has ended. Cinderella Boy is a commendable story, which I definitely recommend to readers of all ages.