Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem – written and illustrated by Lauren Soloy
Tundra Books, 2021
If your father is “one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the World,” but you want to believe in fairies, do you have a problem? If so, how do you resolve it? In Lauren Soloy’s Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem, father and daughter share a dialogue about belief and knowledge. The book takes on this weighty philosophical problem in a weightless way, as light and unassuming as a fairy itself. Soloy compares the gravity of the way adults explain the world to the very different perceptions of a child. The bond between a caring and empathetic father and an imaginative little girl is at the center of this deeply reassuring story.
You won’t mistake Soloy’s highly individual artistic style for that of any other illustrator, Of course, she has many influences, including folk art, Asian art, cartoons, and several other elements. The resulting images are uniquely hers: people with broad faces and minimally delineated features that express the words of her text.
Here those words and pictures tell the story of Charles Darwin and his daughter, Etty, as they take a leisurely walk through the natural world that Darwin dedicated his professional life to explaining. There’s no conflict, just a deep conversation about reality. When Etty asks her father if he believes in fairies, he answers obliquely: “Well, I’ve never seen any proof that fairies are real.” That’s red flag to a curious child who is wedded to the idea that these lovely creatures have at least the possibility of existing. After all, who wouldn’t believe in the deep and light green fairy in flight against a dark green background, right in front of Etty’s eyes?
Etty is not exclusively interested in fairies. She asks her father about butterflies, an obviously related but thoroughly real species. Her father provides maps with lines detailing the butterflies’ routes, while Etty considers other hypotheses about things with wings, and things that resemble magical beings but are real. Darwin suggests that “living things,” such as the oxalis flowers known as “fairy bells,” are ones which “leave evidence, if you know what to look for.” Yet Etty is not convinced. Reasoning that people might not be looking for evidence in the most productive way, she still hopes for proof that will confirm her emotions.
Etty’s father realizes that. This is not a book equating science with magic, or suggesting that provable theories are the same as fantasies. It’s the story of a parent who respects his child’s experiences and validates them. Having asked Etty rather pointedly why she wants to believe in fairies, he proves his own probable hypothesis. Etty identifies with the elusive winged characters “I want to BE a fairy.” With her arms held up triumphantly, her hands holding a leaf and a feather, Etty appears to be conjuring the red fox moving behind her. She has been liberated from the bounds of reason.
Does Etty actually believe that her father has admitted the existence of fairies? You might have that conversation with a child sharing the book with you. Etty states that she feels better after the walk that she and her father shared. She feels better because he tried to answer her questions and came up with some new ones. The beauty of nature had given her “thoughts space to fly.” No doubt, she processed her father’s information about living things and the evidence of their existence, while she could also imagine the perfect habitat for an unproven fairy. Darwin walks calmly, one hand in his coat pocket and the other holding a cane. Etty is the picture of determination, her arms denoting energetic movement. The world surrounding them is lush and vivid, mysterious and subject to scientific investigation at the same time.