The fairy trail

Sonja Bolle is a freelance book editor and children's book reviewer. Her "Word Play" column appears monthly at

Gregory MAGUIRE, our leading reinterpreter of classic stories, doesn't just tell tales with his own twist: He reimagines them from the ground up. In books for children and adults, he has recast Cinderella ("Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" for adults), placed Snow White in the clutches of the infamous Borgias ("Mirror, Mirror," definitely for adults), fractured numerous fairy tales ("Leaping Beauty," a short-story collection for children) and brought together Russian folk tales in a novel for kids ("The Dream Stealer").

Of course, he is best known for giving us the "Wicked" cycle, an alternate history of L. Frank Baum's land of Oz for adults. The first, told from the Wicked Witch of the West's point of view, has been made into the hit musical "Wicked," which is playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

Now, in "What-the-Dickens," Maguire takes on the tooth fairy. What, one might well ask, is there to rethink about the tooth fairy? Or one might simply think: What the Dickens -- how much tooth fairy lore is there?

Not a lot, it turns out. The magical creature who exchanges money or gifts for baby teeth has developed in English-speaking societies over the last 100 years, probably as an offshoot of stories about house elves. Many cultures have found it necessary to dispose of first baby teeth in a special way; the Vikings are thought to have given children "tooth fees." The tooth fairy's first major appearance in U.S. popular culture is believed to have come in a 1961 "Peanuts" strip, when a character asked whether the fairy's prices are set by the American Dental Society. There is actually a tooth fairy expert, Rosemary Wells (not the Max and Ruby books author), whose study of the tooth fairy's prices determined that she kept pace with inflation. In the 1962 book "The Tooth Fairy," long out of print but still beloved in many families, Anita Feagles gave her dental sprite a lithe figure, no wings and a habit of wrapping up teeth as presents for friends. Yet the main question about the tooth fairy, besides the very American preoccupation with price, seems to be: What does she do with all the teeth? On this there is no consensus.

So Maguire is free to let loose his imagination without the encumbrance of established detail. His story is for 10- to 13-year-olds, children long past believing in the tooth fairy, and that's a good thing. You wouldn't want Maguire's creatures prying your mouth open while you're sleeping. "What-the-Dickens" belongs to the new breed of darkish books for "middle readers"; like Kate DiCamillo's much-loved "The Tale of Despereaux," this story contains a certain creepiness, an element that seems to thrill many kids.

Maguire's first act of imagination is to posit colonies of tooth fairies, each with its own fiercely protected territory -- how else could all the teeth in the world be collected? The colony we get to know has a rigid hierarchy, a pyramid with many nameless workers at the bottom and in the middle the Agents of Change, who go on nightly excursions to swap coins for teeth. Fairies at the top have unique jobs: Old Flossie the Stump Mistress, air traffic controller for the tree-stump landing pad; Silviana, diva of the Duty Pageant; and Dr. Ill, a winged dictator who lost the use of his legs defending the colony.

There is also a framing story of humans, those creatures the fairies visit intimately but fear above all. (The prime rule of fairies, or skibbereen, as they call themselves, is: You must not be seen.) Dinah, 10, is an incorrigible fantasist, whose parents are always telling her to settle down and "use the brain God gave you": "No, Santa Claus has no website staffed by underground Nordic trolls. No, there is no flight school for the training of apprentice reindeer."

Dinah and her older brother, Zeke, a "jagged-eyed kid" with "the look of a battery-operated toy that had been left on all night: frayed, overjuiced, imprecise in its behaviors," have been left in their remote hillside home with their baby sister to ride out a horrible storm. (Maguire says he was inspired by Hurricane Katrina.) The parents have left them to go in search of something -- food? emergency supplies? It's unclear -- leaving them in the care of Gage, an older cousin. To distract his charges from the impending disaster of mudslide or worse, Gage spins a tale of an orphan tooth fairy named What-the-Dickens because these are the first words he hears upon his birth.

This is less a story about fairies than about storytelling. Separated from the colony and therefore unschooled in the ways of skibbereen, What-the-Dickens meets Pepper, an aspiring Agent of Change, while she's on a test mission. She brings him back to the colony, where he attends the Duty Pageant, a ritual telling of their creation story. Tooth fairies trace their origins to a lepidopterist's wife, who misunderstood her husband's cry of "true fritillary" (a rare butterfly), instead hearing "tooth fairy." It gave her the idea for a children's story. When a skibberee heard the tale, she took on the identity the story gave her and "began to evolve, because stories work their magic that way. They build conviction and erode conviction in equal measure."

Such observations abound in "What-the-Dickens." At one point, Zeke dismisses Gage's story: "In this household, we believe only in what is real." To which Gage replies: "The storm is real, and comfort is real, too." One of a storyteller's best tricks is to cast doubt on what is real and what isn't, and Gage eventually reveals that it was he who discovered the secret tooth fairy world by capturing Pepper, learning her history and restoring her to the colony. Gage ends his story like a magician stepping into his vanishing cabinet: The fairies granted him a wish, and he chose -- wished, for their protection -- to forget he had ever met them.

How then, Dinah wants to know, can you tell us the story if the fairies granted your wish and you forgot what you knew about them? Ah, there's the magic. Is a story only true if it really happened? Not necessarily.

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