Sometimes I’ll give a speech at events or conferences about children’s books that break barriers. I’ll talk about titles that don’t neatly slot into award categories and, as a result, end up ignored and discarded in spite of their overall fabulousness. But for a couple months now I haven’t found a new title to add to this talk. Leave it to Candlewick to publish something to fill this unspeakable need. Now the names “David and Ruth Ellwand” together are perhaps best known for the picture book Midas Mouse. Of course that book came out in 2000 and until now the duo hasn’t worked on much of anything together in particular. The Mystery of the Fool and the Vanisher is therefore a kind of unexpected treat. Part mystery, part photographic journey, and part fairy story (creeeepy fairy story), the book is certain to suck in a certain strain of child and never ever let them go. No matter how much they might want it to.
It’s a story within a story. In the first tale David Ellwand discusses The South Downs and their legends of fairies and stones with perfect natural holes in their centers. In the midst of his travels Ellwand locates a mystery box that, when opened, reveals a plethora of treasures. One of these is an old wax cylinder that he has transferred to CD. What transpires then is the story of Mr. Isaac Wilde in both words and images. The mystery of what happened to Mr. Wilde and, along the same lines, Mr. Ellwand is at the heart of the duo’s discoveries. Wilde has discovered a colony of creatures he cannot understand. And when threatened, these fairies respond with an object beyond the scope of human understanding. Peppered with authentic looking photographs of the Victorian age and contemporary prints, the book is a love story to both the art of the photograph and the nature of the “fey”.
Photography of the Victorian age lends itself to two kinds of children’s stories. Either you capture ghosts on film as in Avi’s The Seer of Shadows or you use them to capture glimpses of fairies. The fairy storyline would probably be all glitter, light, and fairy dust if left in the hands of anyone else. Under the direction of David and Ruth Ellwand, however, it becomes a distinctly dark tale. These aren’t clap-your-hands-and-Tink-will-live fairies. These are the fairies of Little, Big and the dark legends that haunt humanity. They’re Rackham fairies. The ones that probably bear us a grudge.
To write this book correctly you need an author/artist that knows how to work a camera. A camera with a few more bits and pieces than your average digital toy. Ellwand’s work on this book is effective and beautiful. So effective and beautiful, in fact, that adults as well as children will be fooled into thinking these images are actual old-timey prints. And for that matter I’m not convinced that the shot of Gibson Gayle and the workers who reluctantly aid the anthropologist crew aren’t old. I mean, how many guys do you know these days with free flowing beards and (even rarer) bushy moustaches? No, if pressed I’d guess that Ellwand seamlessly melded actual historical prints with his own pseudo-historical images. Don’t look to the publication page to tell you who’s right, though. All it says is that, “The photographs were created with magic and necromancy.”
I’ve heard some people describing this title as “an adult picture book” which I think is a bit unfair. Anytime an artist gets just a little bit more complicated than your average Barney coloring book then the critics start assuming that the story is too nice to leave just to the kids (see: The Arrival by Shaun Tan). In this particular case I can understand their points a little better. There is some discussion of the photographic process going on that could be construed as less than entirely enthralling to your average everyday ten-year-old. However, those passages are short and very easy to skim over, particularly if you are of the mind to solve a mystery. But if you are going to consider it adult then you need to slot it in the same category as those Griffin and Sabine books that were so popular 15-20 years ago. Really the book that came most readily to my mind as I paged through Ellwand’s photographs was The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. This is almost a perfect companion piece to it. In both cases the books play with narrative techniques, convincing and tempting their young readers into believing that the story behind the story is true. And both are visual delights full of mystery and black-and-white (or in this case sepia-and-white) images.
To top it all off the Ellwands’ book will definitely suck in certain Spiderwick fans to boot. Ellwand takes the crucial step from merely talking about fairies to showing them. Plus he practically hands you the mysterious pieces of fairy lore for you to look at first hand. The glasses tricked out with devil’s eye lenses. The armor made of mussel and oyster shells. This is an almost tactile book. You feel as if you could reach out and stroke the velvety innards of the daguerreotypes’ cases. It’s an interactive experience. Mind you, I guess I would have liked it if the mystery was played up a little more. I like fairy books where the magical creatures look less like small humans and are more dangerous and ethereal. These fairies have dirt beneath their fingernails, and I appreciate that, but it doesn’t quite gel with the aura of mystery that surrounds them before you see on in a photograph.
You librarians and booksellers out there are really going to have to sell this puppy. It won’t walk off the shelves by itself, necessarily. Plus ten’ll get you one that three-quarters of the kids who see it will assume it’s about ghosts. The beginning gets off to a slow start, but for those child readers that persevere the storyline is engaging and generally fabulous. For the child that prefers to seclude themselves in corners reading up on the wild, the weird, and the unexplained, The Mystery of the Fool and the Vanisher is sure to become a very personal and secretive favorite.
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Guys Lit Wire (also available on Writing and Ruminating)
- Becky’s Book Reviews
- Reading Rants
- Chasing Ray
Other Online Reviews:
- The book has its own website, which is worth looking at.