It's flying time again

26th December 1997 at 00:00
The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies By Cicely Mary Barker Frederick Warne, #163;17.99

The Flower Fairies Sticker Activity Book Frederick Warne, #163;4.99.

The Secret Fairy Handbook: or how to be a little fairy As told by the Fairies to Penny Dann Orchard, #163;9.99

A Midsummer Night's Dream Retold by Bruce Coville Illustrated by Dennis Nolan Macdonald Young Books, #163;9.99

The Barefoot Book of Fairies: nature spirits from around the world Retold by Rose Williams Illustrated by Robin T Barrett Barefoot, #163;12.99

Is it millennium fever, or the reaction against the materialist 1980s, or merely time for the interest in fairies to re-surface as if by magic, as it has done periodically from the beginning of the 19th century?

One such period was the early 1920s which saw the publication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book, The Coming of Fairies, Margaret Tarrant painted "Do You Believe in Fairies?" for the Medici Society, Peter Pan was still filling the theatre, and Cicely Mary Barker began her Flower Fairy series.

The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies brings together all her fairy illustrations and poems, and her full-length children's story, covering a period from 1923 to 1948. Seeing all this work together one is struck by her vision of childhood innocence, and her dazzling ability to play apparently endless variations on her narrow range of subject matter - small children, flowers and trees. She finds a visual equivalent for the palpable quality of children's flesh, catches their unselfconscious poses, and her later work shows her development as an artist as she sets their winged figures within increasingly expressive compositions.

Barker's poems are too whimsical to stand the test of time well, but the sight of the Sow Thistle fairy, a tough young urchin, or the extraordinary Horned Poppy Fairy gazing out to sea will cause grandparents to recollect and sigh with pleasure. Their grandchildren probably will be more engaged by The Flower Fairies Sticker Activity Book which has a range of things a child can do, both at home and out of doors: puzzles and colouring pages, how to go on a nature trail, take leaf and bark rubbings, keep a seasonal chart, and plan a fairy picnic are just some of them. Three large background scenes on which to place stickers of Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairies are at the heart of the book.

The Secret Fairy Handbook is a small plump pink book, secured by a daisy decorated Velcro fastener, full of insider information on "how to be a little fairy".

A simple story provides the framework for pop-ups, flaps, letters, secret writing, recipes, a raindrop necklace, stick-on ear-rings, even a "silver" tiara and a pair of doll-sized wings. In the hands of five-year-old girls the book will have a short life, but a sweet one. Adults who worry about gender issues will need to make their own cardboard blinkers.

Samuel Pepys, on seeing A Midsummer Night's Dream, described it as "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life", and some of today's schoolchildren studying the text would add, "and the most confusing one". The re-telling by Bruce Coville, illustrated by Dennis Nolan helps to sort out the plot and sub-plots of Shakespeare's masterpiece. Stagily posed, the human figures are wooden in comparison with the fairy folk - Titania with her wild beauty, Oberon in his wonderful antlered crown of giant twiglets. The enchanted forest with its eerie, anthropomorphic trees riddled with pesky sprites has the most power of all and steals the show.

A recent radio play featured a construction worker who found a fairy sitting on the gear stick of his car parked in a lay-by - a kind of Fairy Swampy and contemporary manifestation of a nature spirit, like those featured in the anthology, The Barefoot Book of Fairies. It brings together eight stories from around the world to show how often fairies are seen as mediators between mortals and the powers of nature. The stories (with the lamentable exception of the English one) offer sound lessons for life and sugar the moral pill with good entertainment. There are memorable characters, like the Japanese stone-cutter who learned the hard way to think before he voiced a wish, and the mysterious shape-changing Algonquin brave who teaches that one mustn't judge by appearances.

While the stories have come from different cultural traditions, the lavish illustration works against honouring their differences. Careful research and painstaking attention to flora and costumes do not necessarily make for visual authenticity. I was left wondering why the concept of nature spirits from around the world wasn't extended to illustrators. How do Hindus or North American Indians picture their fairy folk and wouldn't that be worth knowing by showing too?

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