Friday, January 21, 2011

A Review of Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Booraem

All you other MG fantasies out there, beware: this is the one to beat in 2011! Funny, poignant, and original, Small Persons with Wings carves out an instant niche for itself in the world of children's literature.

Mellie Turpin is the first-person narrator, explaining that she still hasn't lived down her kindergarten humiliation as the girl who claimed she had a fairy and then couldn't prove it. Fidius had played with her endlessly—until she said she wanted to take him for show-and-tell. Then he disappeared, leaving her to face the wrath of a class full of five-year-olds who soon came up with a nasty nickname for chubby Mellie: Fairy Fat. To top things off, Mellie's artistic parents, who had seemed to accept Fidius's existence as real, called him her imaginary friend when questioned by the horse-faced school counselor. Under the weight of so much betrayal, Mellie told herself sternly that there was no such thing as fairies and retreated into the world of facts. She dedicated herself to earning straight A's and became a minutiae-spouting know-it-all, especially with regards to numbers and art history. For years she continued to be bullied by the other kids, still called Fairy Fat.

Now 13-year-old Mellie's parents have received word that her dad's father has died and they have inherited his old inn. The Turpins move there, planning to renovate the inn and sell it. Only once they arrive, things get weird fast, beginning with the introduction of one of the book's most marvelous characters, a fairy named Durindana. Mellie is in the pub part of the decrepit inn when she sees something fall out of the chandelier. As she gets a closer look, she panics:
No, no, no, not again not again notagainnotagainnotagain...
...Options: (a) Unfreeze, run out the door; (b) Count the bricks in the foundation; (c) Both of the preceding options; (d) Stomp on her, just in case.
There's never a school counselor around when you need one.
Eventually Mellie realizes that the fairy is terrified of her and, um, drunk. Looks like Durindana has been into grandpa's liquor! She starts babbling in French, but eventually switches to English, calling Mellie a "warm dolt." (The Parvi are very chilly to the touch, capable of leaving freezer burn on human skin.) In talking to Durindana, Mellie finds out more about the fairies, enough to realize that her parents have known about them all along! Mellie storms off to confront them. She's just spent eight years being bullied and forcing herself to worship facts, and for what? "All the time I'd been counting stuff and organizing stuff and keeping King Kong under control, I could have been reading Roald Dahl."

Mellie's parents confess that the Turpin family has a long tradition of sustaining the Parvi Pennati or "small persons with wings" (apparently they hate being called "fairies"). While she stews over that one, the police chief who lives next door shows up with his son Timmo in tow. He's suspicious about Grand-père's death. Mellie wonders if Timmo might become a friend, but quickly rejects the idea: she's been treated too badly to believe that's possible.

Next a strange woman named Gigi who says she's the real estate agent comes along and pokes her nose into things, obviously using some kind of magic to get people to do what she says. Gigi doesn't seem quite human, though Mellie can't figure out why. After that the entire SPWW tribe moves into the inn's pub, which they redecorate using illusion in a French Baroque style to rival Versailles. Timmo finds out about the Parvi and gets roped into the subsequent adventure involving a missing ring that holds part of the diminutive tribe's magic. But Gigi wants the ring, too. And the grandfather clock on the second floor of the inn just won't shut up...

The portrayal of the Parvi as a sort of madcap miniature version of the French court is hilarious, but the real heart of this book is Mellie. She's prickly, she's stubborn, she's soft-hearted, and she's very real, not to mention a wonderful narrator. Here's another excerpt:
Left temporarily to myself, I wandered down to look at the Bishop's Miter Pub, which I'd never been alllowed to see. I stood out on the sidewalk for a minute, enjoying the fresh air. A freckled kid about my age came out of the regular two-story house next door and started walking over. Oh great, I thought. Animal life. He was pretty scrawny, but he looked to be my age. His light brown hair was longish and straightish and flipped out at the ends like a misshapen ski hat.
The boy, Timmo, is another solid character, as are Mellie's parents, who are surprisingly nice. (Booraem has said she did this on purpose. She was tired of all of the terrible parents in children's literature!)

In addition to the humor, the adventure, and the magic, Small Persons with Wings has a strong anti-bullying theme. Mellie is the main victim of bullying, but if you count carefully, I think you'll find that there are four more victims in this book. Yet Booraem doesn't let her story get bogged down by her theme, instead weaving it naturally into the narration. And she has the good sense to show how Mellie changes in her response to bullies rather than simply punishing them or removing them from Mellie's orbit.

About the only thing I found distracting were a few passages explaining the different types of Parvi magic. Otherwise, the book flows beautifully. The missing ring is found and turns out to be capable of conveying the truth to people and destroying all illusion. Only, as the author points out, would that really be such a great thing? Magic starts flying fast and loose, with Gigi menacing everyone and more than one plot twist to keep readers guessing.

There's also a lovely idea about Mellie "growing into her grandeur" that I know you'll like. So find this book. Read it. And stop using the F word. Because obviously, the correct term is "small persons with wings"!

Also: Check out the interview with Ellen Booraem at The Enchanted Inkpot!

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for middle grades. I will mention that one of the tricks the bullies play on Mellie is to put a tampon in her back pocket as she goes up to solve a math problem on the board. So there are a couple of references to that. Then we get some drinking by both fairies and by Mellie's grandfather, who is an alcoholic and needs to get help.


Charlotte said...

I'm glad you liked this--I'm expecting to myself, and it's going to be my January book present to myself.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I definitely want to read this one! I have gotten a little tired of the fairy theme but this one looks refreshing. Thanks for posting!

Kate Coombs said...

Oh yes, I think you'll like it!

Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

I'm reading it right now and enjoying it immensely! I do agree that the passages explaining the different kinds of fairy magic are distracting, but I love Mellie and her parents.

Jennifer said...

I just put this on my TR list, now I think I need to bump it up to the top!

Anonymous said...

Every thing I read about this makes me more and more interested! Thanks for adding to the mix!

Kate Coombs said...

Anamaria--Well, the book's not perfect, but there are just so many things to like about it. I'm hoping for a sequel. More Durindana, please!

Jennifer and Amy--Read it and tell me what you think! :)

Sherrie Petersen said...

Sounds like a great book! I hadn't heard of it so thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

I have been looking forward to reading every book you reviewed this week. But now I'm most excited about this one. It sounds like just my thing.

Doret said...

This cover is a bit of a turn off for me, but thanks to this review I will keep my eye out for this book.

Madigan Mirza said...

The drunken fairy reminds me of an essay a writer friend of mine wrote in response to the frequent question, "Where do you get your ideas?"

This book sounds interesting - bullying is a hot topic. And I think stories about teens who get along famously with their parental units is definitely a new trend.