Spare the fairies

The Girls' Book of Flower Fairies. Cicely Mary Barker. Copyright Frederick Warne. Publisher: Penguin. Figure that out.

I was instantly infatuated with Cicely Mary Barker's illustrations of the flower fairies — all 120 of them, from the Acorn Fairy to the Zinnia Fairy. I mean, who wouldn't be? (Don't answer that.)

The original Flower Fairies books by Cicely Mary Barker date from 1923-1948, and were "re-originated" by Penguin in 1990. I think that means the new books are beautifully produced in the original styles, with a velvety hard cover and pages artificially yellowed and foxed. But the activities pages have photographs of modern children and modern tools like pinking shears and staplers. So this is rather a strange concoction.

My product tester, Elsie, is almost five. She was utterly bored by the stories, and I don't blame her. American fairies lead boring lives and any naughtiness is miniscule, any conflict resolved by a little chat.

She didn't even pay much attention to the illustrations: I was the one who drooled over those in an initial fit of nostalgia. Then I found myself hankering after Arthur Rackham: his fairies are so much more complex, and they draw you up and away into mysterious worlds. Cicely Mary Barker's fairies are very down to earth — though adorable, of course.

Elsie went crazy over the activities. She wanted to do stuff, and we worked our way through fairy gardens, fairy meals, fairy picnics, fairy beads, fairy wings, fairy garlands and lavender sachets and all the rest. I came to dread the demand for the next activity.

The flower fairies are now a product empire with t-shirts, "fashion accessories", dolls and toys. But you can't tame fairies. I'm thoroughly confused.

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine


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