In Marie-Louise Gay’s Stella, Fairy of the Forest a little girl and her even littler brother decide to camp out for the night. There’s no one else around to talk them out of it – to warn against the possibility of bears and mosquitoes and poison ivy and Bigfoot. The only reference to a grown-up here is to their grandmother: Is she older than the trees?
That you can feel the sun on your neck in this book – and in Stella, Star of the Sea and Stella, Princess of the Sky – is only partly owing to the deceptively simple watercolor illustrations for which this Canadian author is known - when she is known at all. These books have been around for a while (the earliest was published in 1999), still they were a revelation to me (somewhere early into my second child) for their crystal accessibility, and splashy, engaging colors - then also because they did not appear to be working too hard and for my, or my children’s, approval.
You might guess differently from looking at the covers, but this amounted to a crucial, even soul-saving distinction between Stella and, say, Fancy Nancy and any number of other self-coronated princesses. Leaving aside for a minute (or forever) the questionable wisdom of hunting too keenly for role models in this genre, indeed leaving aside the putative impacts on those three- and five-year-old readers altogether, let’s consider the proposition that children are usually a heck of lot more interesting when they don’t know they’re being watched. No less in books than reality. Stella and Sam are both charming, but I’m not sure they care what you think. It’s a pretty neat trick that Gay has pulled off, and yet I think we underrate it. Here are children moving willfully, randomly, spontaneously through three very different landscapes, “and not a sea monster in sight,” observes Stella, referring perhaps obliquely to the sort of predictable conflicts and histrionics which tend to punctuate these things.
Instead there are questions:
“Does a toadfish croak?”
“Can rabbits climb trees?”
“How do rocks grow so big?”
Sam is the worrywart here, Stella full of answers, still no one door is ever closed to further investigation, and while that is the irrepressible spirit of a growing, inquiring mind not overly reliant on every adult to set it straight (“Um, just Google it…”) it is also, I think, the potential of summer - all this rambling and stumbling and venturing through the undergrowth and starting over. Now more than ever. Especially for kids. I swear, you need a spreadsheet to get you through all of the rest – the test-prep and soccer and extracurricular appointments - such is interminable death march to a college of, well, somebody’s choice. Who knows where all this ends up - apart from generational loathing and mistrust – but as long as we are taking a chance with other people’s mythologies, we might as well hazard a couple of guesses of our own. I mean, a seahorse for heaven sakes! A firefly! Think of the possibilities!