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A Walk in the Woods

You can pick up a story for all the wrong reasons and still come away with real value. Or resolve that the world is so full of bad books that their value computes from time saved. Which is some pretty excellent value where I live! Along with newspaper articles I’m not interested in reading, and restaurants and countries I never want to visit, indeed there are days when my every waking minute feels dedicated to this calculus of what is ultimately not worth trying. My son asked me yesterday about the moment in my life I’d most wish to have back. He asks a lot of annoying questions like that. I still haven’t gotten back to him. Because it was almost certainly related to something I missed, or didn’t jump at when I had the chance, and how can you rate what never happened?

I thought about this rediscovering Marie-Louise Gay’s Stella, Fairy of the Forest on our very own bookshelf after a couple of years of only vaguely recalling what was ever so good, or anyway valuable, about it in the first place. Not being much for fairies or princesses or monarchies in general, I must have overcome some mighty preconceptions upon stumbling across this or Stella’s other iterations: Princess of the Sky, or Queen of the Snow, or Star of the Sea – whichever came first I cannot remember. On their glossy, pleasant outsides, these look like a great many other Homeric meditations intended for this age: about not having a party go exactly as you planned it, or not getting the lead in the school play, or classmates saying something mean behind your back, or mommy ordering the wrong color cupcakes.

And yet this ramble through the forest proves finally as quiet and purely observant as anything you are likely to find for your children before they are old enough to start finding books of their own. No tantrums here, and no rescues. Nothing jumping out when you least expect it. The surprises here are mostly of the imagination, as Stella and her younger brother Sam set off attempting to make sense of the this latest natural frontier without a sensible grown-up along to steer them straight. About clouds and sheep and bears (which never appear) and fairies (which maybe do) and other fluttery things:

“Do butterflies eat butter?” asked Sam.

“Yellow butterflies do,” said Stella.

“Then I guess blue butterflies eat pieces of the sky.”

This starts across any old meadow, on any old stone wall, in any old forest, indeed it even takes a couple of readings to realize what Gay is probably up to here, the wildlife unhurriedly appearing: birds like wary smiles across the horizon. Then snails, a caterpillar where you may not be looking, mushrooms, frogs and rabbits till the forest is twitching and thrumming with exactly the sort of eventfulness you’re used to blocking out. Maybe this is only a hollow-eyed urbanite rhapsodizing, but I swear there are times when I’m sick of my reflection staring back at me from every commercial surface and passing face. What I do not know about fairies could fill several bookshelves, but chances are if I were ever to meet a fairy in the forest, at least it would not know me back.

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