Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Review of The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Night Fairy is one of those books that have been reviewed by other bloggers already, including the well-known Betsy Bird, so I wasn't planning to review it myself. Then I read the book. And felt compelled to talk about it.

First of all, night fairy Flory is not the sweetly pink-dressed winged sprite you tend to read about in old-fashioned books for dear little girls. She's more like the fairies in Laini Taylor's books, Blackbringer and Silksinger. Only Flory is less civilized than even those fairies. Here Newbery Award-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz creates fairies who are tiny and sentient, yet also part of the fauna of the wild. Their wings and even their magic are presented as just another adaptive survival strategy, and something the fairies grow into. For example, we're told:

Young fairies have no one to take care of them, because fairies make bad parents. Babies bore them. A fairy godmother is an excellent thing, but a fairy mother is a disaster.
Because fairies do not look after their children, young fairies have to take care of themselves. Luckily, they can walk and talk as soon as they are born. After three days, they will not drink milk and have no more use for their mothers. They drink dew and suck the nectar from flowers. On the seventh day of life, their wings unfold, and they fly away from home.
On the night of Flory's peril, she was less than three months old...
The fairies have a truce with the bats, but a bat tries to eat Flory, breaking off her wings. This traumatic event drives Flory into hiding, and she decides to become a day fairy. As she thinks things through and takes action, it will be very clear to readers that Flory is young and uninformed. But she is hard-working and determined. Little by little, she learns to fend for herself, coping with the demands of the unfamiliar day world.

At first glance, this is simply an adventure story with fairies. In fact, I would take that farther and call it a survival story, comparable to Gary Paulsen's Hatchet. But then, Flory's survival has as much to do with socialization as with the challenges of finding food and shelter. (And by the way, Schlitz has fun giving us Flory's disdainful, baffled analysis of the human "giant" in whose backyard she lives.)

Having been thoroughly shaken up by her life-threatening encounter with the bat, Flory's first impulse is to react by becoming fierce, using the spells that come to her to practice defensive and sometimes offensive magic. When she discovers a stinging spell, she is pleased: "I like that spell," said Flory. "I'm never going to forget it. I'll practice it over and over—and if I ever see a bat again, I'll sting him until he squeaks." The narrative goes on to say:

If a person—whether she is human or fairy—spends most of her time thinking of ways to sting, it is bound to show. In the weeks that followed, Flory practiced her stinging spell so often that she began to have rather a prickly look. Her nose and chin grew more pointed, as did the tips of her ears.

Flory uses the spell to tame a young squirrel named Skuggle, who hopes to eat her, to eat anything, really. Flory rides the squirrel around the garden, in return helping him get food, for example from the supposedly squirrel-proof new birdfeeder. It isn't a friendship at first; we're told that these two are using each other. But it gradually becomes something like a friendship.

Flory misses flying and decides she wants to ride a hummingbird, but the wild, nearly alien birds refuse to cooperate. Even when Flory is in a position to force the issue, the hummingbird is true to her essential nature—a brilliant piece of writing on Schlitz's part.

The absence of other fairies means Flory has to acquire social skills in a roundabout way, but gradually she learns to be a bit less self-centered and to have more respect for the unique, yet basic desires of the different animals she encounters.

I was astonished by how well Schlitz taught subtle life lessons while telling a strong, fast-paced adventure story. If someone were to ask me what the book is about, I would have to say, "Forgiveness." The author shows us in more than one situation why this isn't an easy lesson to learn. Flory not only grows from the height of one acorn to the height of two acorns during the course of the book, she becomes a better person, with a wider view of the world.

The Night Fairy is the best of everything a book should be—an adventure, a fresh take on fairies, vivid storytelling, and a tale in which the main character's experience of becoming will sweep readers along with her. To top it off, this book is physically beautiful, with a design and interior illustrations so perfectly suited to the story that it's hard to believe the illustrator isn't the author. (Instead she's Angela Barrett, illustrator of gorgeous versions of Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, and The Emperor's New Clothes.)

Is it too early to start talking Newberys? I know fantasy doesn't always win, but if I were on the committee, I'd make this an Honor book, anyway. At 117 pages, The Night Fairy is a pocket-sized treasure. Look for it.

Note: Some of the other reviews in the blogosphere are from Betsy Bird of Fuse #8, Charlotte's Library, Oops Wrong Cookie, Fantasy Book Critic, Books 4 Your Kids, A Year of Reading, and Doret of The Happy Nappy Bookseller. As the latter points out, Flory appears from the text and artwork to be black, another nice touch.

Note for Worried Parents: At least one reviewer expressed concern about Flory's fierceness, her acquisition of a thorn dagger and her willingness to use it. There are also scenes of peril involving predators, most notably a praying mantis. The Night Fairy is middle grade fiction, though, and is appropriate for most 8- to 12-year-olds and even some 7-year-olds.


Betsy said...

I am in love with the Hatchet connection. Never would have occurred to me, but you're dead on correct. Wow. Great review

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Betsy!

Playing by the book said...

Just wanted to let you know I'm linking to your post on a round up of books about elves and fairies on May 14 as part of this: Thanks for the review!