Bob Graham is the author of the award winning, amazing How to Heal a Broken Wing, the story of a boy who finds a pigeon with a broken wing on a busy city street and, with the reluctant help of his mother, nurses him back to health. His newest book, April and Esme: Toothfairies, takes on the confidence of children and parental anxieties again.
I am hesitant to call Graham's new book a "modern fairy tale," because I think there's a whiff of cheesiness that goes along with that tag. However, this book is, quite simply, a story about fairies living in contemporary times.
April and Esme: Tooth Fairies (titled April Underhill, Tooth Fairy everywhere else in the world) starts with a prelude that begins, "Not so long ago, a tooth fairy took a call on her cell phone." The next page, the title page, shows a delightful drawing of a fairy house tucked safely behind a tree stump while semis whizz by on the nearby highway. If you look closely, you can see April and Esme flying home to tell their parents about the phone call.
April and Esme, specifically, have been asked by a grandmother to collect a boy's tooth that night - his first lost tooth! April's dad insists that she is too young. April informs him that she is seven-and-three-quarters and that her younger sister will be joining her.
Of course, fairy mom Fay says the girls are too young also. "But you went by yourself when you were six, Mommy. Same age as me - and April's even older." Esme reminds her. "Well, that was a long time ago, before the highway came. Foxes still chased hares on the hill, and things were different back then." mom reminds them. Esme reminds her that some things haven't changed and April adds, with great wisdom, "Children still lose their first teeth and ducklings still have to take their first swim."
The Underhills concede and, with much hugging and preparation, and the admonition to "Send me a text if you need to," from Fay, the girls head off into the night, a string bag with a coin in it suspended between them. They reach their destination and squeeze under the door to find themselves at the foot of a flight of stairs. Wondering where Daniel Dangerfield's room could be, the girls decide to follow the trail of toys. And, it turns out that April does end up taking a swim on her first ever tooth collection when she finds Daniel has left his milk tooth at the bottom of a glass of water. When, after bravely diving in, Daniel wakes up a bit, the girls quickly pull his eyelids shut and send a text to Mommy asking what to do next. She reminds them to whisper the words that Daddy told them into the boy's ear, "We are spirits of the air."
On their way out the door, tooth in tow, the girls spot Daniel's grandmother, the one who made the call, and pay her a visit. While Esme is trying to take some more teeth she has found in a glass of water, April "waded waist-deep in Grandma's hair, then kissed her on the nose," saying, "We did it, Grandma, our very first tooth." Then she tells Esme to let go of the dentures and the two fly off.
Once home, the two are greeted and hugged by Mom and Dad, waiting at the front door. The girls tell their story, drink hot elderberry juice and get more hugs. Mom hangs the tooth from the ceiling and Dad promises, "On Saturday, we'll take it to the Fairy Craft Market for everyone to see." As the sun rises, the girls are tucked into bed. As they are falling fast asleep, Daniel is showing Grandma his coin and sharing his dreams from the night and a new tooth is already coming in.
I read this book many times before writing this review and, I actually ended up writing this review twice when the first one failed to save. With every reading, my love of this book and conviction that it is realistically bittersweet (for adult readers, only), and overall more sweet than bitter. I didn't even talk about the illustrations, which are a bit painterly and a bit cartoonish at the same time. Graham's fairies are round little creatures who live in a world rich with details, another wonderful aspect of the book that frequent readings revealed to me. They have a tiny dog with wings! Fay has a tattoo! Their tiny underclothes are seen drying in one of the first illustrations in the book! Their bathtub is made from a china creamer, their toilet from an egg cup and a toy hobby horse is made from a chess piece!
Graham's writing is layered as well and multiple readings bring richer meaning to the text. More than updating a tooth fairy tale, Graham is illustrating the common experience of parents - the feeling of wanting to protect your children and keep them little, regardless of what you yourself did as a child. As Fay says, it was different when she was little, but isn't it always different, no matter when we were little? And, for the young reader this is a brilliant story of, as April so eloquently puts it, ducklings taking their first swim. How thrilling for children to see the girls go off on their first mission AND get glimpse into the world of the mysterious tooth fairy? On top of that, there are VERY FEW decent, readable Tooth Fairy stories on the shelf and it has been that way since my daughter lost her first tooth over ten years ago.
The bookend to the story is so lovely I am going to print it all :
Out on the highway,
a wild hare scampered across
six lanes of traffic,
past an old stump,
a tiny house,
and up to its time-worn
tracks on the hill.
Nose twitching, it looked over
its shoulder for foxes,
then far out to the horizon . . .
However, there is a really cool book that is now in paperback called Throw Your Tooth on the Roof: Tooth Traditions from Around the World by Selby Beeler, illustrated by G Brian Karas, that is definitely worth checking out!