The Fairy Bell Sisters #1: Sylva and the Fairy Ball – by Margaret McNamara, illustrations by Julia Denos, Balzer + Bray, 2013
Fairies go in and out of style…mostly in, these days. When my daughter was a little girl, however, it was not so easy to find contemporary books about fairies, let alone the extensive number of fairy toys and craft kits that are now so heavily marketed. Not all fairy books, or all fairy book series, are modern classics. Some have thin plots, and others undistinguished artwork. There are some outstanding explorations of these fantastic creatures, including Claire Keane’s work. Margaret McNamara and Julia Denos’ series, about Tinker Bell’s younger sisters and their lives on Sheepskerry Island, is kind of enchanting. These younger siblings of the famed star of book, stage, and screen have many of the same problems as other children. They have other problems, as well, including using crabs as shoe buckles and fighting evil trolls. They also have a special language and a schedule of birthdays which does not correspond to our own.
When Sylva has to watch her sisters’ overwhelming excitement about attending the Fairy Ball, even meeting Queen Mab herself, she is extremely frustrated. It turns out that she will not turn eight, the minimum age for attendance, until the day after the event. If you’re thinking of Cinderella, her sisters are not wicked, and handsome princes are not part of the picture in this female-centered world. But Sylva does suffer from the fairy tale trauma of being a notch below on the social scale. Fortunately, the plot gives her an opportunity to save the day, and it even involves a narwhal tusk.
Beginning chapter books should be appealing and engrossing to young readers. At best, they may also include discussion of family, school, and social issues. Sylva is a little fairy/girl to whom readers will relate. Her intentions are good, just as her resentment is real, and her relationship with her sisters is tense, but loving. Adult role models with wings step in to help. The language has touches of poetry, such as this fairy menu: “lingonberry jam and wheat-berry toast; pomegranate juice poured over fresh-cut peaches; sweet oatmeal with sultanas and apples…,” or this example of a fairy’s wardrobe: “They collected heaps of sea glass, some of it the rarest shade of deep blue. And the mermaids, usually so greedy, took pity on the two little fairies and gave them a bucket filled with ropes of tiny seed pearls.” McNamara even includes recipes, and a glossary of fairy baby words.
Then there are Julia Denos’s pictures. Denos is not exclusively a portraitist of fairies. Her other works, include illustrations for biographies of both Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, as well as other non-famous fictional people. However, she is certainly a perfect artist to bring the world of fairies to life. Her detailed map of Fairy Village on Sheepskerry Island gives them a home. The faces of Sylva and her sisters are expressive examples drawn from human childhood, while their outfits are mixtures of unearthly accessories, such as wings, and everyday Mary Jane shoes, cropped pants, and fuzzy slippers. Sometimes these items, such as crown worn at the Fairy Ball or at a child’s birthday party, bridge two worlds. The group scenes in which characters interact with one another prove that Denos is not only a producer of fairy greeting card covers; her supernatural girls are living beings in social settings. Animals, plants, and other elements of nature also play a role in fairy’s lives and in this book.
Interpreters of fairy worlds might easily fall into cliché. McNamara and Denos have avoided that trap; if you want to share literary works about fairies with a chapter book reader, their books are a wonderful place to begin.