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A Fairy Tale by Tony Ross is a picture book aimed at older readers, aged six to say ten or eleven, which brings the traditional fairy story into a new and unexpected setting.

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In this book, Tony Ross marries the ‘real’ history of a young girl born at the turn of the century and growing up in a mill town, with a fairy story to delightful effect.

Ross is probably best known for illustrating other people’s work, in particular series like Horrid Henry.  He is also famous for his Little Princess books along with hundreds of other books he has either illustrated or authored or both.

In this story he moves away from his more usual, bold and humorous style and uses a kind of light coloured pencil/delicate pastel effect that adds a haunting, otherworldly quality to the story he tells.

The story opens with a little girl called Bessie, trapped inside her terraced house on a wet afternoon, reading fairy stories that make her cross because they point out the difference between reality and the world of fairy, make her dissatisfied and ‘prove’ to her that fairies cannot exist, because fairy land is like nothing she recognises.

Later that afternoon, she bumps into her elderly neighbour, Mrs. Leaf, and tells her about her theories about fairies. Mrs Leaf contradicts her and suggests that magic might be at once both more mysterious and yet more ordinary than Bessie can conceive of.

The story tracks the friendship of the old woman and the girl, through the major events in Bessie’s life as the years go by.  Mrs. Leaf is her friend through thick and thin, her happy marriage and the loss of her husband during the war, and all through the years into Bessie’s old age.

As each page shows us a snapshot of a happy life shot through with moments of joy and sadness, Bessie notices that Mrs. Leaf seems to grow younger as Bessie grows older, and it may be that fairies exist after all.

This is a simply told tale that hints at what the author is trying to say, and yet is very deep in terms of what it insinuates life is like.  The illustrations perfectly accompany this wistful and ordinarily magical tale and I absolutely loved it.

My six year old listened to it in rapt concentration, and I was very surprised. I thought he wouldn’t like it at all. It is clearly more of a girl’s book, with the two women characters in it being so strong and dominant in the text, and the themes of love, loss and friendship being what make this story work so well, yet he was fascinated.

I loved this story. It would be a wonderful addition to any topic in schools about fairy stories, and in particular, introducing children to the idea that although the core of a fairy story often stays the same over time, what cloaks that core can change over the centuries so that fairy stories can be both timeless and modern at the same time.

 

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