Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate
As told to Lesley M.M. Blume
Illustrated by David Foote
Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of Random House)
On shelves September 14th
The term “urban fantasy” gets bandied about a bit these days. If you’re unfamiliar with it, basically it just boils down to the idea of placing normally pastoral fairies in the big bad city. You get a lot of urban fantasies on the young adult and adult fiction side of things. Gritty streets + fluffy fairies = new genre. It’s strange to think that few have ever extended this idea to the younger ages. Urban fairy picture books are few and far between and chapter books? Even The Spiderwick Chronicles sets its modern day tales of fairies in the countryside rather than in the grimy urban streets. Lesley M.M. Blume aims to change all that. Her newest book delves deep into those aspects of New York City where folks might not expect to find the extraordinary (say, the Lincoln Tunnel) and give the grit some magic. Even the most countrified kid will find something to love about this truly metropolitan fare. It’s a doozy.
When one strays into a foreign land, it is advisable to have a native guide on hand. But what do you take with you when the foreign land in question is your own backyard? For that, you will need to turn to an expert. And the expert in the case of city fairies and their kin is Miss Edythe McFate. With great relish, Miss McFate shares with the reader many helpful tips and tricks on dealing with fairies. And not just any fairies, mind, but the ones that have adapted to large city centers like the heart of New York City itself. In this book, a reader will encounter eight short cautionary tales (some more cautionary than others) and, between those chapters, practical advice regarding fairies and their day-to-day lives. Sometimes funny, sometimes dire, McFate/Blume weaves a new look at fairies in the city and leaves the reader wanting more. I’ve no doubt that a sequel cannot be far behind.
The book sets itself apart from the pack partly because it’s not afraid to be all things to all people. Do you like practical field guides to impossible critters that could not possibly exist? It is that. Or do you prefer short stories about fairies (“and other nasties”) and couldn’t care less about the practical survival techniques such a book might provide? It is that as well. Blume gives you the option of picking and choosing what it is you wish this book to accomplish. Visually, it does not resemble a field guide of any sort. No faux battered cover or mock leather clasp. Inside there aren’t individual boxes or cutaways. Really, just glancing at the chapters a person would be inclined to believe that this was just your average everyday middle grade chapter book. I was rather taken with the unexpected nature of the presentation. While the subtitle certainly does mention that this is “A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate”, how many kids are ardent subtitle readers? This book will therefore come as a bit of a surprise to them. The question then becomes, a good surprise or a bad one?
I say good. Blume is tapping into a Roald Dahl punishment mindset with these tales. Only unlike Dahl, Blume isn’t going to moralize. The thing a person needs to know about fairies is that they don’t deal with justice. Good little children are as likely to suffer at the hands of the fair folk as bad little children. Right from the start you’re sort of given a hint of this with the tale “A Face Made from Flowers”. Though the first story in this book is about a good little girl who does a good little deed, this second tale is about a different good little girl who suffers a bad little fate because of her foolishness. I can see kids getting thrown by this. The story in question is about a plain girl born in a family where beauty is prized above all. Her only comfort comes when she hangs out with the fairies in her backyard in a fairy circle. Eventually, in her misery, she asks the fairies to make her beautiful. The result is not what she may have expected. I can see child readers finishing this story and thinking to themselves, “Wait . . . what? But she was a good kid and her sisters were bad! Why weren’t they turned into something?” For a few they’ll be seriously upset, but for most they’ll be all the more inclined to read the stories. Suddenly, they won’t be able to utterly trust in the author, a fact that makes the reading all the more exciting. When a bad kid can get away with something or a good kid can be punished unexpectedly at any moment, that sort of ratchets up the tension in any short story collection.
There are some inconsistencies in the book, alas, though they are few and far between. The premise is that our narrator, Ms. McFate, has interviewed these children or people these children have known and learned of their tales. Some stories, however, could not possibly have been gathered that way (I know that I’m getting weirdly technical on a children’s book here, but I like internal logic to work). For example, in the story of Daisy, the girl who was turned into a flower, the girl in question was the only one in that story capable of telling her tale. Then she’s daisyfied, rendering her mute. Indeed, the narrator goes so far as to even tell us what the girl’s final thoughts were, prior to becoming a blossom. This would work fine if the book had an omniscient narrator, but since the very name of the narrator is in the title, it feels as if the title is trying to have it both ways.
Illustrator David Foote makes for an interesting pairing with Ms. Blume. There are two ways any artist can go with a fairy book. Either you can become hugely precise and delicate or you can go wild and free. Mr. Foote’s work is clearly in the latter category. These are images that owe more to Ronald Searl and Ralph Steadman than Tony DiTerlizzi or Chris Riddell. The image that faces the title page, for example, shows a series of messy extensions bursting forth from the gutter of the book. Are they plant life or long hairy legs belonging to a creature of unspecified species? No idea. Yet they effectively set the tone. These strange mixes of vegetation and hairy fly legs creep and extend over a number of pages inside the book. As for the rest, Foote’s spot illustrations give the tales a comfortable feel. It was clever to make the story about the Algonquin brownies the first since Foote’s images of the brownies are charming. They’re like little Fiorello H. Laguardia’s in their little suits and sharp eyebrows. On the opposite side of the equation is his ugly mermaid, a gal with a face that could stop a clock. You bet. Foote is clearly the right man for this job.
I’ve seen plenty of middle grade fantasy set in New York in my day. Everything from Grand Central ghosts in The Night Tourist to Central Park dragons in Falcon’s Egg to living gargoyles in Stoneflight. I’ve seen the occasional fairy too, I suppose, but books like Delia Sherman’s Changeling couldn’t be more different in tone than Ms. Blume’s. After all, Ms. Blume’s is a practical guide above all. There’s also something about the tone of this book that makes you inclined to believe everything it says. I found myself almost wanting to take notes about placing coins on the floor to detect good and bad fairies and when it is appropriate to wear your clothes inside out. Ms. Blume has the ability to make you believe in the impossible. No small feat for a book of medium size. Fun and original.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from author for review.
Other Blog Reviews: Educating Alice
Just one book trailer for this puppy, but it’s a nice one: