Small Persons With Wings by Ellen Booream. Dial Books for Young Readers (2011). Currently available.
Genre: Middle grade fantasy/fiction
Face Value: My initial impression of this cover was very positive. I liked that we don’t see any actual fairy bodies or faces, because I’d rather leave those up to my imagination. The glitter and sparkles cued me into the fantastical nature of the text. And I was glad that the sparkly letters were blue, not pink. Pink would have been too much too handle. This cover looks just “fantasy” enough without being a stereotypical genre cover.
Then I started reading the book, and I got angry. Mellie is an overweight girl. Why are there spindly little legs on the cover? Would it have been so hard to get a slightly bigger girl to model for the cover photo? I’m irritated at the blatant ignorance of the character’s physical traits. Those legs do not belong to Mellie Turpin.
Does it break the slate? It bends the slate significantly, but the slate is not broken. Small Persons With Wings is a case of a book featuring a slatebreaking character but without a slatebreaking plotline. Mellie has had a terrible time at school. She’s everyone’s favorite target. She struggles socially because she does not fit the culture’s physical ideal of a cute little girl. Although she constantly battles her physical insecurities and often finds herself wondering what other people think of her, Mellie is outstanding at handling pressure. She ends up being the only person able to solve the problems with the fairies because the adults are all indisposed.
Who would we give it to? Kids in the middle of elementary school who still secretly long for the companionship of an imaginary friend. This is the perfect book for young readers who want to believe in magic and have vivid imaginations. It would also be an excellent graduated reading opportunity for a girl reader who cut her teeth on the Rainbow Fairies series. (Maybe that’s unfair. This book is so much better than the Rainbow Fairies series that it is perhaps an unflattering comparison to even mention them in the same sentence. Small Persons With Wings is an above average fairy book.)
Review: I believe in one golden rule for fantasy fiction: clarify the magic. If the magic within your fantasy world does not make sense, then I’m going to lose interest. At the beginning, the rules made sense, but then multiple layers of magic were added on. I still think I understand the Magica Vera and the Magica Artificia, but the origins and uses of Magica Mala remain fuzzy. Also, what’s up with that Circulus? I’m still fuzzy as to how it functions to sustain the magic.
Despite the magical inconsistencies, I was thoroughly engaged by the main character Melissa Angelica Turpin. (It’s a name with lineage, so it’s really important that you say all three names together.) She has managed to survive years of torture at school with her sanity intact, although her imagination is severely limited. Mellie is all about facts. She eliminated imaginative fancies from her mind long ago, when they got her into a major snafu at school. Mellie remembers having a fairy friend when she was little, and she tells everyone at school about the Small Person with Wings that lives in her house. When she is unable to produce evidence of the live-in fairy, she becomes the target of classroom ridicule that continues into first grade, second grade, third grade…and onward. Mellie is the outcast and she copes by memorizing facts about art history. She knows she’s not cool and she never will be, but she’s ok with that.
When Mellie’s family suddenly and mysteriously gets the opportunity to move, Mellie is thrilled. This means that she can start over in a new city, in a new school, and remake her social image. Except…the fairies are back. Big time. Her new house (which is actually an old house inherited from her grandfather) is infested with a colony of small persons with wings. And they are in the midst of some social upheaval. The Turpin family becomes embroiled in the situation, and it gets much more complicated from there – but I don’t want to give anything away, because there’s a mystery to be solved in this fantasy novel, and it’s more fun to read it yourself!
The magic used throughout the story offers an opportunity that is very tempting to Mellie. One of the bad fairies offers to change Mellie’s appearance so that she will be beautiful, thin, and ultimately stunningly popular when she starts her new school. It’s a moment when we get to see Mellie’s weaknesses. She’s determined to be a strong, independent, smart girl who can survive social torment. But deep down she has a glimmer of hope that a change in appearance could make her whole life more bearable. This character struggle gave me a bad feeling. Although Mellie does eventually arrive at some level of acceptance of her appearance, by the end of the book I didn’t really believe that she was ready to “own” it. The author writes an ending scene in which Mellie “grows into her grandeur” and sticks it to the other kids at school. But the narrative voice in which Mellie recounts this scene feels insecure and unsure. I worry that she will revert back to her fact-loving, wallflower ways.
Believability becomes a problem at the end of the story. Yes, I realize that I shouldn’t be complaining about believability in a fairy novel. But there is a sudden plot point at the end of the book involving Mellie’s worst enemy from her old school that started me. The author throws this twist in at the end with little explanation, and although I understood why she does it, I just don’t buy it. It is this, as well as the magical inconsistencies, that make me doubt the Newbery Medal buzz about this book.
I can’t wrap up this review without pointing out the awful adults in this story. Every adult character is plagued with a personal issue that renders them incapable of doing anything effectively. (I think Booream is drawing major inspiration from Roald Dahl’s terrifying adult characters.) Mellie’s parents are flighty artists who are easily scammed. Her grandfather is a raging alcoholic. The next-door neighbor is an incompetent and boorish cop. At some point in the story, each adult is paralyzed by their shortcomings, leaving Mellie to solve all of the problems. This may be deceivingly slatebreaking because it leaves Mellie in the position of power. However, Mellie feels distressed and alone because of the lack of adult support. And I couldn’t help but feel bad for the adult characters because they were so pathetic.
This book has terrific characters and an especially admirable pre-teen girl for readers to enjoy. I think this is absolutely one of the exciting new books of 2011, but in the end Booream’s attempt to bridge realistic fiction with fantasy is flawed. I will be surprised if this book gets a lot of recognition when awards season rolls around.
Reviewed from library copy.