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Review of the Day: Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Booraem

Small Persons with Wings
By Ellen Booraem
Dial (an imprint of Penguin)
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3471-5
Ages 10-14
On shelves now

We’re all sick of vampires right now. We’re also a little tired of zombies and don’t even TALK to me about angels. A couple years ago you could have said the same about child wizards. Fantasy trends, you see, are fickle and fleeting. One trend that somehow hasn’t managed to become annoyingly ubiquitous, however, is the fairy trend. In spite of the vast popularity of the Rainbow Fairies series, fairy books for kids and teens come out in spurts and starts. No single fairy has managed to cross into the world of pop culture, with the possible exception of Tinkerbell (and with Disney as her current guiding light I’m not sure she counts). As a result, fairies are fair game. You can write a novel about them without being accused of selling out, and indeed some of the finest writers of our age have written fairy novels in their spare time (see: The Night Fairy or What-the-Dickens). Now author Ellen Booraem puts her own unique stamp on the fairy experience coming up with a novel appropriate for a tween but with creatures that are beloved from preschool onwards.

The Parvi Pennati are not fairies. Fair warning: call them that name and expect to experience some serious pain. Mellie Turpin knows about that kind of pain firsthand since she grew up with a small person with wings when she was young. Unfortunately when she told her Kindergarten schoolmates about her friend and failed to produce him she was immediately labeled Fairy Fat thanks in part to her girth and has carried that nickname through the years. So you can see why she’d be thrilled upon hearing that since her grandfather passed away to learn that her parents have inherited his old inn. Looking to spruce it up the family moves into their new home only to find that they have been lured there by a malevolent presence. Stranger still the entire Parvi Pennati clan in all its glory has also decided to take up residence. It comes down to Mellie to crack a couple mysteries and to save the day when all the adults around her human and fairy alike turn out to be useless in the face of catastrophe.

This book first came to my attention when folks started comparing the writing to that of the great British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones. I like me my Jones, though I’ve always had the creeping suspicion that she’s not comfortable with ending her novels. Starting them, sure. No problem. But sticking a landing is a tricky business. As it happens, Booraem does indeed share Jones’s playful take on the fantastical, not to mention the personal lives of magical folks. And Booraem doesn’t have a problem with her endings either. One problem she does have, though, is very DWJ-like. In this book the Parvi attempt to explain how their magic has changed over the years. They had their Magica Vera first, which was the original earthy magic. After that the Parvi discovered the Magica Artificia, which could make things look far fancier than they were. The third type, the Magica Mala, is pretty easy to understand since it’s bad magic. No problems there. Unfortunately this all has to be explained a couple times since it can get confusing and the first time it’s explained it doesn’t quite take. And then there’s the Circulus . . . but the description of what exactly this is must have been pretty quick and early because as far as I could tell it had something to do with fairies that fly in a circle a lot and give off power . . . but I’m not sure. Diana Wynne Jones has a habit of introducing elements that are sometimes a little too ambitious for her storylines too, you know. I don’t think the Circulus hurts the story or anything (all we really need to know is that if it stops that’s bad) but it would have been nice to get a clearer and concise explanation of it right from the get-go.

But like I say, Booraem has a way of making her characters, all her characters, real to the reader. Mellie is the most real amongst them and she presents a challenge. On the one hand, you’re supposed to pity Mellie. No one wants to go through their school days being called Fairy Fat. But at the same time you can’t make Mellie some sad sack self-pitying boob or no one’s going to want to read about her. She needs to be bullied, but still have a backbone. Booraem somehow manages this problem, making Mellie prickly but still self-conscious. When push comes to shove and it’s all up to her to save the day, she doesn’t back down either. Looking in on her parents who are out of commission for a while she feels love for them, “And a healthy dose of terror, which I firmly tamped down. I couldn’t afford terror. Terror was for kids whose parents were around to make it fun.” And that, in a couple firm strokes of the pen, is who Mellie is to me.

I always like a good fantasy that’s a mystery as well. In this book that would be a question of who the evil fairy is that is conspiring against the Parvi Pennati. You’re given a couple good clues making the answer guessable, but not so obvious that every child reader will get it. The author also throws in a couple red herrings that seem to contain vast importance but do not (ex: The china sculpture that Fidius leaves behind). Booraem would do well to try a straight up mystery one of these days. What could it hurt?

Thanks to books like The Spiderwick Chronicles I will occasionally get kids (boys AND girls) seeking books about fairies. And if you eschew books in which fairies are human sized, this isn’t quite as easy as you might think. Sure there are books like The Faeries of Dreamdark or Spell Hunter or even The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood but stories where the perspective is from that of a human dealing with fairies can be a toughie. Booraem, therefore, gives us a kind of original fairy novel. It’s a coming of age story set against a backdrop of irritable relatives, giant drooling frogs, creepy mannequins, and bratty older sisters. Best of all, it’s a fun story with a large heroine who doesn’t need to slip into a size 2 to prove her worth. Think of it as a Judy Blume novel for the fantasy-loving set.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Notes on the Cover: Our heroine is overweight.  However, one cannot show overweight kids on covers unless the book is a comedy (see: I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President).  The solution is either to not show the protagonist at all or show a tiny part of them.  Feet are apparently preferable (A) because it is trendy to put wacky shoes or wacky socks on book jackets these days and (B) a kid could conceivably be chubby and yet have svelte ankles.  Conceivably.  It doesn’t make me happy but as long as the cover isn’t outright lying about the weight of the heroine, I don’t care all that much.  I may like it more than the Australian cover in any case:

First Line: “Last June, my parents jumped off a roof because of a pinky ring.”

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  • Read a PDF of the first chapter if you’re curious.
About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I’m waiting rather impatiently for our copies to come in! Really looking forward to this one. I shall have to bide my time with Amelia Lost and Close to Famous (Joan Bauer’s latest) until then…oh, such a hardship.

  2. This one looks really interesting. I hope to check it out soon!

  3. Chris in NY says

    Huh. I thought for sure I got this recommendation from you. I really enjoyed this book a lot- hope it is a Newbery contender (yes, I liked it that much). Liked the interaction between the neighbor boy and his family. Also liked the skill in conveying the menace about the police officer (neighbor boy’s Dad). The ending was good too- not exactly what I had called.

  4. I got this book in the other day and it’s in processing right now. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.