Saturday Review: Among the Fairies

Tagging along after yesterday’s post, here are two relatively new (and one older) titles in that perennial genre, the fairy tale:

Small Persons with Wings, by Ellen Booraem.  Dial, 2011, 302 pages.  Age/interest level: 12-16.

Melissa Turpin learned to give up imagination in kindergarten, when her fairy friend Fidius turned out not to be real.  Or did he?  At age 12, after enduring years of fat jokes from her schoolmates, her grandfather dies and she and her parents move from Boston to Maine to take over his business, the Agawam Inn in “scenic, seaside Baker’s Village.”  That’s where Mellie learns that her family is descended from Archbishop Turpin (one of the 12 Peers of Charlemagne), who are blessed with the generational obligation of protecting the Parvi Pennati: “Small persons with wings” (don’t call them fairies!).  Her folks knew it all along!  Why didn’t they tell her?  And what happened to Grand-pere?  And who is this Gigi Kramer person who passes herself off as a layer, real estate lady and plumbing inspector?  And does Timothy Oliver, the boy next door, have the potential to become Mellie’s first real friend?

There’s some fairly complicated fairy (sorry, Parvi) business here—let’s just say you probably don’t know as much about them as you think.  Here they get some imaginative treatment, and, for that matter, so does imagination itself.  Mellie sees it as her nemesis and the enemy of what’s “real.”  Turns out, she had it all wrong: “I’d spent five years of my life making sure I only saw what I was in front of me.  Now I needed my imagination to see what was real.”  This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ observation that we think of the spirit world as non-substantial, when it’s actually more real than the world we see.  (Also recall Elisha’s plea to the Lord to open his servant’s eyes in II Kings 6:15-17).   If there’s a theme, it’s Trust Your Senses, the very thing most Parvi can’t do because . . . oh well, it’s complicated.  Everybody learns the real beauty—and magic—of nature, art, and industry.  And Grandeur, which Mellie’s mom is always telling her she’s growing into.  I can’t hear that word without thinking of God’s Grandeur.  Not inappropriately, perhaps.  A smart but also entertaining read, though there’s no excuse for the tampon story.

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5 out of 5
  • Literary value: 5 out of 5

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherine Valente.  Feivel and Friends, 2011, 247 pages.  Age/interest level: 12-up.

Of September’s journey to Fairyland (on the Leopard of Little Breezes, guided by the Green Wind); her adventures there, her encounter and rivalry with the Marquess, and how she got back.  Her journey echoes the story of Persephone, carried away by Hades to reign in the land of the dead for part of the year—September even meets her Death in the Forest of Pandemonium.  But echoes of Alice, Peter Pan, Narnia, and doubtless others can be heard as well; the story is so dense with classical references and Jungian archetypes that circumnavigation is hindered.  At least it is for the age level, which makes me wonder if it should have been marketed to grownups.

There are some interesting insights, such as, “All children are heartless.  They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror.  Hearts weigh a lot.  That’s why it takes so long to grow one.”  In the process of growing a heart September will forge herself into a link between imagination and reality, acquiring a depth of knowledge and compassion available neither to unimaginative humans nor reality-denying fairies.  Her dilemma is similar to Melissa’s in Small Persons With Wings, and for some readers, it can be a journey worth taking.  For others, such as myself at that age, it won’t make much sense.

  • Worldview/moral value: 4 out of 5
  • Literary value: 5 out of 5

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull.  Shadow Mountain, 2006, 368 pages.  Age/interest level: 9-12.

In the first volume of this wildly successful series, Kendra and Seth are going to stay with their grandparents while their parents embark on a 17-day Scandinavian cruise.  Why the cruise?  Because their maternal grandparents were asphyxiated while staying with relatives in a trailer, and funds for this particular vacation for their children and spouses was provided in their will.  That seems an odd way to start a children’s series, but it might have some relevance for a later episode.  At any rate, the action is soon off and running with a mysterious paternal grandfather, a missing grandma, a taciturn hired man (Dale), a paranormal housekeeper (Lena), and all kinds of frustrating rules about where the kids can and can’t go.  Which Seth promptly breaks.  He has to, in order to force the revelations that will move the story forward, but besides being blatant disobedience, his actions are monumentally stupid.

Turns out that Grandpa is the caretaker of a fantasy reserve, where fairies, imps, trolls, satyrs, and one gollum are shielded from the outside world.  Events (triggered mostly by Seth) lead to the release of a confined witch, a house invasion by hostile spirits, the disappearance of Grandpa and Lena, and Dale’s transformation into an oversize lead statue.  Oh, and the immanent release of a demon that will destroy Fablehaven for good.  As you might guess, there are enough surprises and action to keep readers turning pages.  Boys especially will love the gross experience of milking a huge cow, ending up in milky mud with “yogurt in my armpits.”  Mostly harmless fun—though why doesn’t Grandpa just tell them stuff, especially since he reveals, to no one’s surprise (in view of the many sequels) that Kendra and Seth are the next Fablehaven caretakers?  Lena adds the metaphysical angle; her comment that all religions contain truth but are corrupted by human philosophies would be an especially springy springboard to discussion if your kids read Volume One.

  • Worldview/moral value: 2 out of 5
  • Literary value: 3 out of 5

For more fantasy literature for middle grades, see our reviews of The Emerald Atlas, The Dragon’s Toothand the Wingfeather Saga.  For some YA fantasy titles of last year, click here.


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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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