Invisible Elf Leaves Tracks on the Table

The Blueberry Pie Elf – written by Jane Thayer, illustrated by Seymour Fleishman
Purple House Press, 2008 (reprint of original edition, 1959)

This is a review of an older book, the type that invites the description of “nostalgic,” as if that were a negative quality in children’s books.  Of course, there are plenty of older books, ranging from mediocre to offensive, which don’t need to be invited back into our libraries. This is not one of them.  Created by a prolific author Jane Thayer and the prolific illustrator Seymour Fleishman, it engages children in the story of a small and invisible creature who, because of his very nature, cannot communicate his needs to humans.  In the end, he gets his blueberry pie, after performing a number of domestic chores made difficult by his diminutive size.  He has good manners, even when frustrated.  Best of all, young readers accept the premise that he is real and that he only needs to devise the right method in order to be believed, even while he preserves his secrecy as an elf.

To put this terrific book in context, it used to be quite difficult to find, but was reprinted by Purple House Press, a small publisher in Kentucky dedicated to producing new editions of out-of-print books. Even the author’s and illustrator’s names are unfamiliar to you, a bit of research will reveal that they were incredibly prolific, if sadly less known today.  Thayer also wrote under the name of Catherine Woolley, and Fleishman, who illustrated over eighty books for children, does not even seem to have merited an obituary in the New York Times or Publishers Weekly when he died in 2012. 

This is an illustrated book with a great deal of text relative to its pictures.  Reading this type of story expects a longer attention span than younger children might typically have, but try it! The story is exciting and the pictures combine relatively static images of the human family with ones of the persistent elf’s relentless activity.  When we first meet him, he is sitting on a girl’s shoulder while she reads a book. Right away, we are in a literate home, even though reading then disappears from the rest of the story, which emphasizes food and housework.  By establishing that the girl is a reader, the author and illustrator hint at a fairy tale world residing within a mid-twentieth century home.  Fleishman shows the elf’s size through scale in scenes where only a human hand holds a basket of blueberries or wields a rolling pin. Recollections of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush, surface in pictures of the elf sweeping the toy room, dwarfed by a toy car and only somewhat bigger in relation to a toy jack. 

Most of the illustrations are in black and white, with touches of purple giving prominence to the blueberries.  A well-stocked suburban refrigerator houses the elf prospecting for his favorite food; we also see him sleeping off his meal inside a teacup. Then the blueberry pies disappear and he gets a little desperate. Jumping up and down like Rumpelstiltskin accomplishes nothing; nor does tugging on the mother’s ear. No one can see him or hear him, nor, apparently, can they feel his touch.  He gets to work making himself useful. In one two-page spread he tugs on the quilt of a double bed with great fortitude; the family recognizes his work but remain baffled about the identity of their silent housekeeper.

Children’s fantasy has its own logic, and the book’s internal logic reflects this truth.  Apparently, invisible elves leave visible footprints once they have stepped in blueberry juice.  Also, cherry and apple pies are completely inadequate substitutes for the elf’s favorite. Finally, manners are important, even if you are invisible and have finally succeeded in revealing yourself as an important person and are rewarded with a blueberry pie.

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