Why do children, most notably little girls, like fairies? I think we can understand the princess allure. Princesses get to wear frilly clothes, sparkles, and absolutely everyone has to obey them. So why are fairies also popular? Laura Amy Schlitz has a theory. Princesses wear corsets. Fairies don’t. Princesses have responsibilities. Fairies don’t. Princesses spend a lot of time inside castles. Fairies spend a lot of time outdoors. If the romance of the princess is that you get to be above the rough and tumble everyday realities of life, the romance of the fairy is that you get to be in the thick of it. Flying, running, dodging, hiding, and getting to be in nature like no other creature. Now Ms. Schlitz has created a fairy story for her future "wild women of America". On the surface, The Night Fairy looks like a beautiful object d’art. Wriggle inside its pages, though, and you’re reading the story about the kind of creature who fights monsters one minute, and sews herself the most delicate of flower blossom dresses the next. Beauty and excitement all in one slim little package.
"Flory was a night fairy." Was, I’m afraid. Like others of her kind she was perfectly content to flit about at night. Unfortunately Flory was born with lovely luminous wings so pretty that one night a bat crunches them by mistake, and Flory finds herself wingless. Alone and hurt in a strange garden, she becomes determined to be a day fairy and sets about taking care of herself. She befriends a hungry squirrel and the two help one another out. She makes herself a home in a birdhouse In the midst of all of this, however, she still longs to fly again. One day she sees a hummingbird and becomes determined to tame and ride it. Such plans, however, hit a wall when Flory discovers that wanting something and then actually getting what you want are two very different matters.
I don’t know where this notion that fairies are insipid came from. I guess there’s a feeling that a lot of them just sort of flutter about for no apparent reason. In light of this, Flory may have to become a spokeswoman for anti-fairy defamers. Sure, when the book begins it says that like those other fairies Flora is “coasting on the breeze, letting it toss her wherever it liked,” but she’s soon plunged into the real world and has to make her way. Using her cleverness she finds shelter, gets food, makes clothing, and finds an ally. All the necessities of life are ticked off, one by one, all thanks to her ingenuity. She also makes herself a weapon, though, and on more than one occasion she has to do battle with forces much bigger than herself. Typically fairies are considered girly territory, but there’s nothing about Flory that a boy wouldn’t also enjoy. She’s feisty, a fighter, and she knows what she wants (most of the time).
The other charm of fairies, and I really hadn’t thought about this until Ms. Schlitz brought it up, is how tiny they are. I wonder why that’s so appealing. Kids are already small. You would think their instincts would be to want to be huge. Yet tiny things entrance them. Dollhouses and miniature train sets and the like. I guess the idea of being small was why Thumbelina was one of my favorite books growing up. Imagine behind able to use a flower as a boat and to pole yourself away. Flory gets to immerse herself in the wild, and there’s a lot to love about that. As a kind of child surrogate, she also gets to indulge herself. It’s not just that fairies are free but that they’re also willful like kids. Flory wants her own way. She’s clever enough to get it most of the time too, but much of this book is about Flory learning that others have needs too. My husband likes to say that in a good work of fiction characters want what they want. Flory is the perfect embodiment of this. She wants what she wants and when she has to acquiesce to what other animals or creatures want it takes an extra effort for her to understand this.
To be fair, the very packaging of this book is a great part of its charm as well. The size is small, bringing to mind the Flower Fairy books of Cicely Mary Barker. The pages are thick and white. Each chapter begins with a small silhouette of some of the action that is about to happen. And every watercolor in the book has a purple border on one side, usually close to the gutter of the novel, that features a vine of thorns and berries. It’s quite subtle. You might not notice it on a first or second reading. Near the end of the book, this border duplicates itself to appear on either side of the two-page spread of Flory’s ultimate triumph. Little details like this allow a book to feel loved. A reader might not notice the curlicues beside the page numbers or the embossed silhouette underneath the book’s cover (take it off and see for yourself) but if they do notice it will sit well in their unconscious minds.
And then there are the watercolors by Angela Barrett. Ms. Barrett has sort of made a name for herself, illustrating books with luminous images. Her Beauty and the Beast by Max Eilenberg, for example, is one of the best picture book versions of the tale out there. For this book, she has created illustrations that almost resemble colored pencils, they’re so light on the page. I’m personally a fan of thick lines and deep colors, so the sketchy nature of the art isn’t one that I’m immediately drawn to. Still, I could appreciate Barrett’s use of light and detail. It is clear that she read the book thoroughly. The first image we have of Flory is of her standing at night, her wings still intact, her silver shadow (the shadows of night fairies are silver instead of black) casting a bright path behind her.
Another thing Barrett does so well here is understand the sense of scale. Schlitz writes at the beginning that Flory was “as tall as an acorn”. She’s remarkably small. You get a vague sense of this at the start, but it isn’t until you see Flory confronting Skuggle the squirrel that it really hits home. For American kids in many parts of the country, squirrels are pretty reliable go-to wildlife. You see them everywhere. You understand roundabout how big they are. So to see Flory standing about as high as Skuggle’s knee, that hits home.
At times it reminded me a bit of Miss Hickory, a book by another Newbery award winning author (though I am happy to report that unlike Miss Hickory, Flory doesn’t get her head eaten at the end of her story). One thing we can conclude at the end of this book is that Laura Amy Schlitz truly has a way with words. She simply has never written a bad book. In the past she has conquered fairy tales, biographies, Newbery winners, and middle grade fiction. Now chalk off “bedtime stories” with The Night Fairy if you please. It’s difficult to do what she does. In this book you’ll find the ultimate fairy title. One you not only won’t be ashamed to hand to a kid, you’ll be encouraging them to give it a try. Another winner.
On shelves February 23rd.
Source: Reviewed from hardcover copy provided by publisher.
Full-Disclosure: I should definitely point out that Laura Amy Schlitz is a friend of mine. So perhaps you will be inclined to view my comments with a grain of salt. That said, I have lots of friends and few are this accomplished.
Professional Reviews: Booklist gave it a star
- Candlewick is on top of their game here. They’ve already given this book its own website with links to a gallery of sketches, additional resources, biographies of Laura and Angela, and an excerpt of the book that you may read (it is very fun to turn the pages).
- Monica Edinger takes this book, as well as others containing fairies, into account at Educating Alice.
- Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast has also read it to her kids.