If the Shoe Fits
Literary Tales and their Audience
Children’s Literature New England
August 9, 2005
Mrs. Griffith and her sister were annoyed. It was 1917 and their daughters, ten-year-old Frances Griffith and sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright, were late for tea. The Griffiths had recently come from South Africa to stay with the Wrights in Cottingley, England while Mr. Griffith fought in the war. Frances and Elsie were spending their days at the beck, an enchanting brook and waterfall nearby. When the girls finally appeared, Frances was sopping wet causing her mother to be even angrier. But it wasn’t her fault, said Frances; it was the fairies. Those at the beck had caused her to slip and fall in.
I too discovered a fairyland when I was Frances’s age; mine was in a grove of trees in the backyard. The low boughs sweeping to the ground created perfect boudoirs for my fairy friends; the fallen pine needle made for soft carpets, bits of sticks and leaves fine furniture, and acorn shells the most elegant dishware possible. That fairyland was full of portals through which I traveled to Wonderland, Oz, Narnia, and Neverland. I was besotted by those worlds of magic and couldn’t get enough of them. I too was sometimes late for supper.
Fairylands, imaginary friends, pretending, and reenacting beloved stories have long been accepted forms of childhood play. As far as the adults were concerned, as long as she got home dry and on time, Frances could pretend there were fairies at the beck all she wanted and while my parents too wouldn’t have accepted them as a lateness excuse, they otherwise had no trouble with my backyard fairyland. Nor do I today when I see students setting off into their preferred worlds of fantasy.
I started teaching when the first Star Wars movie came out and will always remember how those nine year-olds boys brought their action figures of Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and the others to school and spent their playtime crawling around the classroom fighting Darth Vader again and again. In 1996 I was at first charmed with Tamogotchis, those little eggs containing digital pets, but eventually banned them when child after child became obsessed with keeping theirs alive and then were heartbroken for the rest of the day when, despite all efforts, they expired. These days during recess I often see pairs of children completely absorbed in writing stories together. They let me read them because I’m curious, but they don’t really care what I (or anyone for that matter) think — it is the act of creating the story that matters. On quests and adventurous journeys, armed with imaginary swords and fantastic creature companions, these children are entering their worlds of fairy through these stories.
And what exactly drives these imaginary sojourns to other worlds? While I can only guess what stimulated those girls in 1917 and suspect that a variety of media influences my students, for me it has always been first and foremost books — especially those full of fairy and magic. And so my classroom library today is stuffed with literary fairy tales, many of my units feature them, and I read still more aloud. Of course, I’ve got plenty of other genres too; I recognize that a steady diet of fairy tales isn’t for every child, but admit that in my classroom this genre reign supreme.
It isn’t, I’m afraid, as well regarded by others in my profession. American educators have always had an ambivalent attitude about fairy tales. Detractors at different times have deemed them frivolous, frightening, escapist, useless, and otherwise unworthy of serious study. And not so long ago either. When I began teaching there was a successful movement to replace reading textbooks with real books. It was a wonderful time to be a classroom teacher — encouragement to get rid of deadly workbooks and bring in creative new lessons was everywhere. The only problem for me was that my gurus did not like fairy tales or fantasy; their preferred genres were realistic fiction, memoir, poetry and historical fiction.
As time went on I became frustrated — where were the educational leaders to support my use of fairy tales in the classroom? Where were the lesson models for the many children I taught who loved to read and write fantasy? Why were these stories at best tolerated and at worse made invisible? Fortunately, whatever the reasons for this, the situation shifted dramatically in 1998 when Harry Potter crossed the pond. Now fairy tales are getting the respect in elementary education that they deserve. It is delightful to see articles in professional teaching journals describing lessons featuring fantasy and fairy tales, to see teachers taking the genre more seriously, to see these stories recognized by those who used to reject them. Today fairy tales of all kinds are the belle of the ball!
Back in Cottingley all was not well. Fairies at the beck? This outrageous excuse infuriated Mrs. Griffith and she sent Frances to her room in disgrace. Elsie followed her, consoled her, and then made a suggestion. Why not borrow her father’s camera tomorrow? Everyone would believe them if they showed them a photograph of the fairies, wouldn’t they?
And so the next day Elsie’s father kindly set the camera up for them and off to the beck went the two girls. Several hours later they were back and watched as he developed the plate in his darkroom. What, Mr. Wright wondered were those bits of paper floating around Frances? The fairies, of course, said Frances. Hogwash was his response.
They borrowed the camera again; this time the photo was of a gnome looking at Elsie. Now Mr. Wright was really annoyed; surely they had cut them out of paper? Absolutely not, the girls insisted; those were real fairies. Unconvinced, Mr. Wright searched the girls’ room and the trash bin for evidence, but found nothing — no bits of paper fairies or gnomes. At last, fed-up he told them they couldn’t take the camera again. Imaginary play was one thing, but to continue to insist the fairies were real — that was ridiculous.
Of course many fairy tales haven’t any fairies in them. But whether they do or don’t, the best ones stimulate readers’ imaginations, opening up other worlds for child and adult audiences alike. They make all sorts of improbable things seem probable. Say fairies in Cottingley Beck.
Or in Kensington Gardens. “She was only a few inches high, and was dressed in green, so that you really would hardly have noticed her among the long grass; and she was so delicate and graceful that she quite seemed to belong to the place, almost as if she were one of the flowers. I may tell you, besides, that she had no wings (I don’t believe in Fairies with wings), and that she had quantities of long brown hair and large earnest brown eyes, and then I shall have done all I can to give you an idea of her.” This is Sylvie of Sylvie and Bruno, Lewis Carroll’s fairy tale full of fairies written after his fairy-less Alice stories.
Like many other Victorians, Lewis Carroll was very interested in the occult, spiritualism, and the possibility of otherworldly beings. About Sylvie and Bruno Concluded he wrote, “It may interest some of my Readers to know the theory on which this story is constructed. It is an attempt to show what might possibly happen, supposing that Fairies really existed; and that they were sometimes visible to us, and we to them; and that they were sometimes able to assume human form: and supposing, also, that human beings might sometimes become conscious of what goes on in the Fairy-world …” Carroll, a member of at least one spiritualist organization, evidently not only believed in the possibility of fairies, but in dreams too; for him, Wonderland and the land beyond the Looking-glass, were not purely places of the imagination.
Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded are pretty dreadful for any sort of audience. Full of baby talk and other saccharin-sweet language, only the most fanatical Carrollian is able to get through them today. But even Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-glass, so beloved by scores of Victorian children, are now much more likely to be read by adults than by Carroll’s intended child audience. Told first as playful stories to a trio of sisters and then reworked into the novels we now know, the stories were extraordinarily popular in their day. But over time, especially post-Freud, they have become tarred with a darker cast. Unfortunately, for too many adults today the stories are weird and even frightening and so they avoid reading them to children. However, I can testify that given the chance, children today enjoy them as much as when they were when first written. You see, because I loved the books when they were read aloud to me as a child, I’ve been doing the same for my students for decades. And they absolutely relish Carroll’s wit, his imagination, and his charm. Since the word “adventure” implies a very dramatic and driving plot, before beginning I make it clear Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is something else, a meandering journey with barely a plot to be seen. It is subversive, I explain; Carroll is making a lot of jokes about children’s lives of that time. As I read I slip in bits of context as necessary —say a stanza or two of the original poems that he parodies so brilliantly or something about schooling in Alice’s time. Carroll’s way with language, his understanding of the frustrations of a child, and his wit makes this literary fairy tale one that really deserves, in my opinion, to be rehabilitated and returned to its original audience of children.
And what of Carroll’s friend George MacDonald? Even if children haven’t encountered Carroll’s original books, they have some awareness of them via Disney’s movie. MacDonald, on the other hand, seems off everyone’s radar. He appears hardly read at all except by adults like ourselves. “You could say,” writes Naomi Lewis in her introduction to my Puffin edition of The Princess and the Goblin, “… that it is about a little girl who lives in an ancient castle in a wild, mountainous region, whose father has ridden away on his horse on some grave and serious errand; and about a boy miner, called Curdie, who saves her from the goblin kingdom underneath this land. Or you could say that like most invented fairy tales, it is about the battle between good and evil. There are certainly many exciting happenings in that goblin world which the miners’ tunnels so often have to cross. But what is most likely to remain in anyone’s mind long after the book is closed — even a lifetime after — is the secret turret room at the end of the winding stairs: the room with the fire of roses, the shining lamp, the starry walls, the free white birds, and the spinning wheel whose sound is like summer, whose thread is one of the finest gifts in the world. And anyone who read this book is never likely to forget the lady who spins the thread — Irene’s great-great-grandmother.”
I sure haven’t. I read this book and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie, over and over as a child. They cast such a spell on me that when I recently reread them I had such a vivid image of that room that I knew I must have drawn it. After scrabbling around a bit enough among my childhood drawings, sure enough there it was — a watercolor with stars that I had cut out of foil and glued to the paper. MacDonald’s language, characters, dramatic tension, and especially imagery upon rereading were as potent for me as ever. However, I’ve not given them to any of my students recently fearful that they would find them to be too old-fashioned. Fortunately, I’ve been reassured by Kemie Nix who recently wrote me:
George is too old-fashioned for many, but not all children. He often needs an introduction, but then children beg for more. It was interesting, when I was teaching in the inner-city not too long ago, I read The Princess and the Goblin to a third grade of African-American children – sort of against my better judgment as it is what I call “a pink-and-white book” (Irene’s hair and starry blue eyes) but an African-American librarian…insisted that I read it, because she didn’t want ANY change in my curriculum from private school. They LOVED it! They loved it so much that I tried to analyze why it was received so enthusiastically. I finally concluded that love of grandmothers is so strong in that community that perhaps that was the reason they embraced the book. My African children [in the school in Kenya where I teach] also love it. Go figure. (Perhaps grandmothers again.) Anyway, with a little help, he seems to speak universally.
So it seems Naomi Lewis had it right — no one who encounters Irene’s great-great-grandmother can resist much less possibly forget her.
A MacDonald book I have used successfully with children today is The Light Princess. It is a very different sort of book from the two princess novels – literally lighter in heft, tone, spirit, and language. As with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as Kemie notes, a little help is needed and so I do slip in bits of information here and there as I read; however, not much as I prefer to rely, as I think MacDonald did himself, on the very capable child readers themselves to figure out some of the words they don’t know.
For example, here is the beginning of MacDonald’s description of the witch — “She was a sour, spiteful creation. The wrinkles of contempt crossed the wrinkles of peevishness, and made her face as full of wrinkles as a pat of butter.” Now I can read that knowing that while my students may not know many of the individual words, they easily get the overall sense of this unpleasant character; as one wrote to me, “The witch is very ugly.” The children were very intrigued by it seeming to be a parody of “Sleeping Beauty”, fascinated by the curse causing the princess to have no gravity in both the physical and emotional sense, and captivated by such language play as “ light footed and light fingered.” Here are some of their other comments:
- There are a lot of very funny puns in this story.
- ‘They might knock her down, push her down, but never could let her down’ is a very funny comparison to her when people played ball (with her being the ball)
- How can you laugh, but not show any other emotions such as smile, cry, and frown?
- I like [the nursery rhyme references] mixed in the story like the queen is in the parlor eating bread and honey.
Happily, it seems George MacDonald’s fairy tales are still capable of enchanting young people today. I recommend that if you don’t know them, check them out.
And there are other older literary fairy tales that continue to work beautifully for their intended child audiences. Another, while not perhaps as elegantly written as those by MacDonald and Carroll is L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Reading this book is always a great surprise to children knowing only the MGM movie. I suspect some of the appeal is that Baum employs some of the same wild inventiveness the children use themselves when they write together for fun. Certainly the book is tremendously adventurous and exciting; the pacing is fast and something new and amazing seems to happen on every page. Baum doesn’t brood and ponder as does MacDonald, he isn’t particularly spiritual or poetic; and his way with language runs more to wild names than the wild word play of Lewis Carroll. His books just zip along, imaginative and fun reads for children today as often as when they were first published.
So now I’m sure you are wondering — what happened to those fairies at Cottingley? Were they forgotten? The photographs stuck on a shelf to rot? Well, not exactly. You see, Elsie’s mother hadn’t been as skeptical as her father. The occult interested her and so she went to meetings of the Theosophist Society, an organization interested in the possibility of other worlds and beings. The possibility of fairy existence came up at one such meeting and so Mrs. Wright showed the girls’ photographs. Interest was immediate. Members of the Society took the photographic plates, had new prints made, and sent them out to experts for analysis. While some predictably dismissed them as hoaxes others were certain that they were real. Leading Theosophist, Arthur Gardner was one of the latter. Excited at the possibility that proof of fairy existence was at hand, he traveled to Cottingley, met with the girls, and left them with a camera. Two weeks later when he returned, they had three more fairy photographs for him.
Now while it is easy for me to imagine Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald considering the possibility of fairies, I can’t see James Thurber buying in to them at all. Spirits and flower fairies were simply not his style. Perhaps best known for his New Yorker cartoons, Thurber was also a writer of wicked wit, happily presenting an often curmudgeon-like view of life with an, at times, almost vitriolic stance on women. Take “The Unicorn in the Garden” in which a delighted man runs inside to tell his still-in-bed wife that there is a unicorn outside. “The unicorn is a mythical beast” she scoffs and, when he persists, that “you are a booby and I am going to have you put in the booby-hatch.” Of course, in the best fairy tale tradition, guess who ends up in the booby hatch? Also in Fables for our Times, is “The Little Girl and the Wolf” in which “she had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother, but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.” While Thurber may have intended these for adults, my students are familiar enough with the basic “Little Red Riding-hood” story structure to relish this subversive twist (after a quick explanation of the Metro-Goldwyn lion and Calvin Coolidge) and, even more so, the moral, “It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.”
Yet as scathingly harsh as he could be for adults, Thurber’s fairy tales for children have a completely different sensibility. Many Moons, a whimsical tale from 1943, begins: “Once upon a time in a kingdom by the sea, there lived a little Princess named Lenore. She was ten years old, going on eleven. One day Lenore fell ill of a surfeit of raspberry tarts and took to her bed.” Understandably distraught at the need to find a means to make her well again, her father agrees to get her whatever her heart desires. And what does the princess want? “I want the moon. If I can have the moon, I will be well again.”
With wit and humor Thurber goes on to create a delightful story with little of the crankiness that is so pervasive in his adult work. Like MacDonald and Carroll, Thurber respects and trusts his young readers (evidently more than his adult readers). Many Moons is full of the same playful love of language that MacDonald and Carroll use in their stories for children — these are authors who are passionate about words and want to communicate that love to children.
Thurber, like the best writers of literary fairy tales, plays gently with the traditional tropes. The king’s counselors come, one after another, with lists of what they have done for the king. “I have got ivory, apes, and peacocks, rubies, opals, and emeralds, black orchids, pink elephants, and blue poodles, gold bugs, scarabs, and flies in amber, hummingbirds’ tongues, angels’ feathers, and unicorns’ horns, giants, midgets, and mermaids, frankincense, ambergris, and myrrh, troubadours, and minstrels, and dancing women, a pound of butter, two dozen eggs, and a sack of sugar — sorry, my wife wrote that in there.” (I guess there is still a tinge of misogyny in his children’s stories.) Like George MacDonald’s Metaphysists in The Light Princess who suggest to the king that they bury his daughter to restore her gravity, the king’s counselors in Thurber’s tale are equally if not more hopeless — none of them have a clue how to get the moon. Finally, with a little help from the jester, Princess Leonore proves wisest of all. It is a most satisfying ending that continues to charm children today — the little girl knowing more than the adults around her.
By now, in Cottingley, it was 1920. Frances was away at school and Elsie at work. Still traumatized by the suffering and deaths of the Great War, the British were looking for answers. The idea of real spirits, real ghosts, and real fairies spoke to a great and yearning need many had. The hope was that there really were fairies and the Cottingley Beck photographs, at long last, was the proof that was needed.
Certainly, in this case none seem to have it more than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The great writer of the Sherlock Holmes tales was preparing an article on this topic for Strand Magazine when he heard about the girls’ fairy photographs. After looking at them and hearing the various experts’ opinions he was convinced they were genuine and wrote about them in his article. The skeptics had a field day, of course. How could the famous man be so duped? But others believed him — like so many they desperately wanted there to be fairies and were easily persuaded by the photos and Sir Conan Doyle that they truly existed.
I’m not sure where Philip Pullman, an avowed agnostic, stands on fairies, but he has often expressed a firm belief in the importance of the imagination, creativity, and the power of story. Best known for his remarkable trilogy His Dark Materials, Pullman is also a writer of original fairy tales for children. These include the Germanic-feeling Clockwork; The Fire-maker’s Daughter with an Indonesian setting; and his latest, The Scarecrow and his Servant with an Italian commedia dell’arte sensibility. When I asked him last year if he had a definition for fairy tales, Pullman wrote me:
I know one when I see one, just as I recognize the difference in taste between an orange and a tangerine; but it’s not easy to define. Looking at my own practice, and at the kind of stories I call fairy tales …and the other sorts of things I write that are definitely not fairy tales, I suppose that psychological simplicity is one aspect of it. But maybe it’s a matter of tone as much as of anything else. Which reminds me of this:
Up so long and variously by
Our age’s fancy narrative concoctions,
I yearned for the kind of unseasoned telling found
In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean
Over the centuries by mild old tongues,
Grandam to cub, serene, anonymous.
Lacking that voice, the in its fashion brilliant
Nouveau roman (even the one I wrote)
Struck me as an orphaned form, whose followers,
Suckled by Woolf not Mann, had stories told them
In childhood, if at all, by adults whom
They could not love or honor. So my narrative
Wanted to be limpid, unfragmented;
My characters, conventional stock figures
Afflicted to a minimal degree
With personality and past experience –
A witch, a hermit, innocent young lovers,
The kinds of being we recall from Grimm,
Jung, Verdi, and the commedia dell’arte.
That’s from the opening section of James Merrill’s extraordinary long poem ‘The Changing Light at Sandover’ (Knopf, 1996).” Continues Pullman, “I’ve quoted it many times as a perfect description of just that fairy-tale tone of voice, which I like and try to find in my own writing.
Voice, that so-hard-to-define-essence of story. In the case of literary fairy tales, it is a voice that harkens back to the oral tradition, to the feeling of sitting around a fire and listening to a story being told. Pullman, a teacher for a long time, told stories to his classes. Years later, his former students remember these retellings of Greek myths, the Odyssey, and other well-known stories.
In a recent speech at Stockholm’s Royal Library, after receiving the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Pullman said:
Thinking about myths and folk tales and fairy tales, much later on, I realized that they work as well as they do because each of the great stories has a particular shape. And when you become aware of that shape, it has a profoundly sensuous appeal. It has the same attractiveness as a smooth marble statue: you want to stroke it; you want to run your hand over the surface, to feel the undulating shapes and the rise and fall of the contours. And you want to shine a light on it in such a way that it reveals the shape, that it throws interesting shadows, that it brings out the rhythm of the whole form. In other words, you want to tell it for yourself. And you begin to see similarities between this form and that one; you begin to see how many stories in the world have the same basic shape as Cinderella, for example, or Beauty and the Beast.
Pullman’s closer look at the shape of Cinderella resulted in I Was a Rat! a story that I have read aloud with great success year after year. Here we have those familiar fairy tale characters, the poor shoemaker and his barren wife; yet another bumbling wise man in the form of the Royal Philosopher; Cinderella-after-the-ball; heartless and hapless bureaucrats; and a small boy with a predilection for pencils who keeps insisting he was a rat. The story is fun to read aloud because Pullman has that storytelling narrative voice done perfectly and I always have my child listeners in the palm of my hand with this one. They are curious as, for all its familiar fairy tale trappings, the story is not predictable; they empathized with the rat boy’s misunderstandings; are moved by the shoemaker and his wife’s efforts to do the right thing with the authorities; charmed by the language; and immensely amused by the whole thing.
Like MacDonald and Thurber, Pullman has great fun with language, say the rat boy’s misunderstanding of the word patience. The little boy is at one point told to have patience and somehow understands that to be the name for those tasty wooden sticks we know as pencils. Pullman also brings in a few Dickensian subplots, one involving a shady carnival operator and the other a gang of street urchins, which keeps the adventure going and his child readers on the edge of their seats. It usually isn’t until the story is almost over that my students realize who Roger was — one of Cinderella’s rats — and then cheer the happy ending.
Pullman, like those oral storytellers before him, also isn’t above providing a moral, one quite a bit more serious than Thurber’s admonition that it isn’t so easy to fool little girls nowadays. “ just as the little rat-boy wishes he could go back to being a rat…” says Pullman in his Stockholm speech, “…. [Cinderella] has discovered that it’s not such a great life being a princess after all; but neither of them can go back. We can’t go back. We have to go forward. She has to be as good a princess as she can be, and he has to do his best to be a boy.”
The idea of a moral, that a story is instructive, or didactic does not always go hand in hand with our idea of great literature these days. While some of the earliest literary fairy tale writers were openly and unapologetically creating stories with strong morals, we now tend to like our literature a bit less over-the-top moral wise. Some of those old stories were cautionary tales — warning children to be good or suffer the most horrible consequences. Others simply showed what wonderful things would happen if you were pious, and good, and so forth.
Today, our writers of literary fairy tales may have other messages in mind, but they are still there. Those like Philip Pullman are able to communicate these messages in ways that children can hear and think about and take to their hearts. Their fairy stories are the best kind of children’s literature possible. The sort that helps young readers on their journey to figure out just what it means to be human.
As for those Cottingley fairies, the Theosophists believed that their existence could only help in humanity’s quest for understanding. For the Theosophists believe in something beyond — for them fairies, ghosts, and spirits are more than something to imagine; they are possible. Perhaps this is why Sir Conan Doyle and Arthur Gardner insisted until their deaths, even writing books on the subject, that fairies existed and the Cottingley photographs proved it.
Over the years the story periodically resurfaced. As photographic methods improved, the girls’ photographs began to look mighty fishy and it became harder for anyone to believe they showed real fairies. Nonetheless, even as mature women Frances and Elsie stuck to their story. There were, they insisted, fairies in Cottingley Beck. Their photographs were the proof.
Whether or not Charles Dickens believed in fairies he did believed fiercely in fairy tales. “We must assume that we are not singular in entertaining a very great tenderness for the fairy literature of our childhood,” he wrote. “Forbearance, courtesy, consideration for poor and aged, kind treatment of animals, love of nature, abhorrence of tyranny and brute force–many such good things have been first nourished in the child’s heart [with] this powerful aid. It has greatly helped keep us, in some sense, ever young, by preserving through our worldly ways one slender track not overgrown with weeds, where we may walk with children, sharing their lights.”
The stories for which Dickens is best remembered while not fairy tales themselves are full of fairy tale elements. Oliver Twist, for example, can be seen as a male Cinderella — from its ill-treated protagonist to its final happy ending. And it is this fairy tale advocate who inspired Kate DiCamillo as she wrote her Newbery award winning literary fairy tale, The Tale of Despereaux. Employing a unique storytelling voice and using exquisite language, DiCamillo tells the story of that small mouse with the big ears, Despereaux Tilling. Another fairy tale without fairies or magic, in my experience it never fails to enchant children.
I was a bit nervous when first planning to read it aloud because of its unusual structure, but I needn’t have been. The children were hooked immediately and, indeed, told me they didn’t want it to end, so taken were they by it. Like the parents in many of Dickens’ stories, the parents in this fairy tale are weak, stupid, and consistently ineffectual. It is the children — Despereaux and the Princess Pea who demonstrate integrity and agency not their parents. Not all the children though. Sadly, as in Dickens, some are damaged and unable to be completely repaired. Abused to the point of brain damage, poor Miggery Sow is used by the dark-hearted Roscoro — the rat who is as emotionally injured as Mig is physically.
There is something in this story that makes me think of the darkest of the Grimm tales. Miggery Sow’s abuse, in particular, can be shocking, but children accept it just as they do those dark stories of Grimm. For like MacDonald, Carroll, Thurber, and Pullman, DiCamillo respects her child audience; she is confident that they are emotionally capable of hearing about the horrors that human beings do to one another. On the PBS News Hour in March of 2004, she commented that:
…there’s a lot of darkness in the world. And I think it’s a disservice to think that kids don’t know that the world is full of all kinds of dangers and dark things. They know. And for adults to tell them that the world is only sweetness and light when the kids can see something entirely different in front of them is — that’s kind of ridiculous. So I want stories — I wanted stories, as a kid, that dealt with the world the way I saw it, which was tragic and wonderful, light and dark.
The Tale of Despereaux was published in September 2003, a time when we in New York were still constantly thinking about what had happened in our city just two years earlier. A colleague who was reading the story to her class wondered if it had been written at that time. And indeed, it had. Kate DeCamillo wrote me:
Right after 9/11, I was heading back to Minneapolis. I sat next to a man who asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I wrote stories. Stories about what he wanted to know. Well, I told him, before 9/11 I had been working on a story about a mouse and a princess; but now, I couldn’t make myself believe that stories mattered or would ever matter again. In luggage claim, in Minneapolis, the man came up to me and said, ‘Hey, good luck with your mouse. And have you ever thought that you’re wrong? Maybe stories do matter.’ I went home and wrote ‘maybe stories do matter’ on a little piece of paper and stuck it over my desk and I started working again on the mouse story. I tried to tell the story as if it mattered.
The Tale of Despereaux is indeed a story that matters, at the same time fantastically dark and enchantingly light. It is the best sort of invented fairy tale, one full of familiar tropes — the princess, the dungeon, the villain, the thread, the soup —- but also one full of unique twists and unexpected turns, a story that keeps its readers spellbound. Just as it is impossible for those of us who fell in love with George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin to forget Irene’s great-great-grandmother so I think it would be equally difficult for anyone who fell in love with The Tale of Despereaux to forget the story’s hero — Despereaux Tilling, a very small mouse with a very big heart.
Now I’m sure you want to know what happened with those Cottingley fairies. So, here’s the end of that story. Does it have a happy ending? You decide.
As an old lady, Elsie finally confessed; she had copied the fairies from a book and used hatpins to attach them to the leaves. Things were a little muddier for Frances. In 1981 she told journalist Joe Cooper, “My heart always sinks when I look at it [the first photograph]. When I think of how it’s gone all round the world— I don’t see how people could believe they’re real fairies. I could see the backs of them and the hatpins when the photo was being taken.”
But that last photograph? “It was a wet Saturday afternoon and we were just mooching about with our cameras and Elsie had nothing prepared. I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph.” For she insisted till the end of her days, that in the beck “… were real fairies. Some had wings and some not…. It all seemed so peaceful and friendly…. Sometimes they came up, only inches away, but I never wanted to join in their lives.”
Thinking back to the fir trees in the backyard of my childhood, I can remember how much I loved rainy days, mooching around in that fairy world of mine, the rain barely coming through the heavy pine boughs. And so I look at that last Cottingley photo, at the fairies—paper or real — fluttering about, and remember how easy it was to look out beyond the trees where the mist and rain obscured the house and imagine myself in another world. If ever I believed in fairies it was on days like that.
Charmed. Fascinated. Enchanted. Spellbound. All language I have been using in this talk to describe my child self and my students’ reaction to these literary fairy tales. Interesting, isn’t? That I unconsciously turned to the language of fairy when trying to find the best language to communicate audience response to them. I don’t mean to be syrupy or maudlin in using these words and phrases; it is just that they seem to best describe what is going on. It is also no doubt why I was so taken with the story of the Cottingley fairies. Not, as many seem to be, because two young girls seemed to pull the wool of over so many adults’ eyes. Rather I was taken by the image of those girls so enjoying that beautiful brook and waterfall that they may have been able to push their imaginations just a bit farther to thinking there were fairies there too. And then, how much fun to create those fairies out of paper and make them real with photographs. And so, yes, I’m charmed, enchanted, fascinated and even spellbound by the idea of it.
Pushing the imagination. For it ultimately comes down to that —the ability to imagine. Through these fantastic stories we can imagine fiercely, wildly, or gently — a million different ways. Despereaux fell so deeply in love with fairy tales because he could imagine himself in one. So could I under those fir trees. So could Frances and Elsie, I like to think, at the beck. So can my students as they listen to me read to them or read on their own. By way of these stories we slip across that border between reality and those other worlds that our imaginations create for us — traveling to places where there are fairies, talking mice, princesses, witches, castles, dungeons, and glorious soup. With this wonderful human ability called imagination, we readers lose ourselves in those other worlds. And best of all, they help us to think about our own world as well. These are stories that matter very much indeed.