Jane Ray's The Dollhouse Fairy is exactly the kind of book I would have loved as a little girl! Ray's illustrations, which are a combination of paintings and collage, bring to life the cardboard dollhouse of the title. While I had a "real" dollhouse as a child, I also built my own from cardboard boxes and school glue, using scraps of fabric, napkins, magazines and whatever else seemed to fit. I even built an orphanage out of a huge box and made all sorts of dolls from my mom's old pantyhose to fill it. Jane Ray has captured this DIY essence in her artwork, knowing just when to use a photograph of a clock, patterned fabric, a tea set or a cake to enhance the beautiful paintings of the dollhouse. Ray's book begins, "Rosy loved her dollhouse. It was her favorite thing in the whole world because her dad had built it just for her. Rosy and Dad made all the furniture together and collected all sorts of things to put in the different rooms."
The Dollhouse Fairy is also special because of the characters in the book. I realize that dads get a lot more play in picture books these days, and not just as the fun guys who throw you up in the air. But, I still think it is very special that it is Rosy and her dad who have built this dollhouse together and it is Rosy and her dad who get up early every Saturday morning to make new creations for the dollhouse. The other really special aspect of The Dollhouse Fairy is that Rosy and her family are not white. This is amazing. As someone who reads many, many picture books, I can tell you that it is rare for characters in a picture book (when they are humans and not animals) to be something other than white. And, even more rare, the story is not being told in order to express something culturally important to the characters in the book. Rosy is just a beautiful little girl with brown hair, brown skin and big, brown eyes. And mom and dad and Grandma are all kinds of brown as well. I love this quality in Jane Ray's art, especially in the illustrations she did for Berlie Doherty's Classic Fairy Tales, published by Candlewick Press last year, which are about as far from Disney Princess as you can get. I hope that we can move away from white as the default color of characters in books in the very near future.
There really didn't need to be a plot for The Dollhouse Fairy - I could have happily looked at pictures of Rosy, her Dad, the dollhouse and the fairy for 32 pages with nothing more happening than a new bed, bookshelf or tiny quilt being made for the dollhouse, but Ray has crafted a story as wonderful as the dollhouse that is central to it. One Saturday morning Rosy wakes up and everything is different. Grandma is in the kitchen and Dad is in the hospital. Ray does a wonderful job presenting this a serious situation in a way that is both understandable and only peripherally upsetting to a young child. With her text and illustrations she lets us know that Rosy is worried and sad, but also that she is safe and loved. When Rosy decides to play with her dollhouse, hoping it will cheer her up, she finds her toy house in chaos and a fairy named Thistle tucked into the little brass bed. I absolutely love how Thistle has a bit of the look of a savage about her. She can run with the Lost Boys or take tea with the Queen and her dress is straight from the House of Ellwand!
Rosy helps Thistle to mend her injured wing, keeping her a secret and feeding her raspberries, rose petals and, Thistle's favorite, potato chips. Soon, Thistle is feeling better and Rosy helps her to practice flying again. Even though Thistle was "funny and noisy and full of mischief" and even though she "bounced on the bed and drew on the walls," Rosy loved her.
Finally, one sunny afternoon, the door opens and Dad is home. The happy family sits down to tea and the special cake that grandma has made. Afterward, Rosy snuggles up with her Dad and tells him her secret. They head up to Rosy's room and look in the dollhouse, but Thistle has gone. Although Rosy and Dad can't see it, the reader can see her just outside the window, waving goodbye. Rosy and Dad tidy up the mess that Thistle has left behind, leaving a piece of special cake just in case she returns.
Bedsides being a wonderfully told dollhouse and fairy story, Jane Ray's The Dollhouse Fairy manages to accomplish something that is very rare and ambitious - the feat of telling a story that is more than just a story. The parallel between the disruption in Rosy's family with her father being in the hospital and the messy little fairy who moves into her dollhouse is brilliant and, although it easily could have been, not the least bit coy or whimsical. Ray's twofold story conveys the understanding that, although it may seem bad and frightening, illness, absence and disruption are a natural part of life and can be lived with and lived through. I applaud Ms Ray for taking on such momentous themes and presenting them in such a gentle, artful manner. The artist who can also write a brilliant book (or, the writer who can also illustrate a gorgeous book) is a magnificent and unique wonder.