Flights of fancy

Illustration: Mackenzie Crook

Mackenzie Crook: The Windvale Sprites
With illustrations by the author
Faber 2011

That is when the thought struck him. ‘I’ve found a fairy.’ Just like that with no exclamation mark. […] Not wand-waving Tinkerbells but sinewy insect-men: wild creatures that must be secretive and hardly ever spotted.

A boy. A storm. An unexpected encounter. A library. Wild places. Classic ingredients for a children’s mystery, written and illustrated by Mackenzie Crook who knows how to spin a yarn that’ll draw in any imaginative young reader (and the odd adult too). Though this is a tale about fairies it’s not a fairytale in the conventional sense; while there are traditional elements this is essentially an adventure story involving young Asa Brown attempting to solve a centuries-old conundrum, and what he did after he found the answer.

What do we think of when we encounter traditional fairytales? Magical beings no doubt. Do they appear, only to disappear when humans burst in on them? Are they our size, only dressed in outlandish or anachronistic garb, or are they diminutive with butterfly wings? Do they grant wishes, or do they bring down misfortune upon our heads? Does time warp and change when you stray into their realms, or are there taboos which you must not contravene?

Asa will find some answers to these questions when investigating these sprites. But first he has to research the eccentric Benjamin Tooth, an eighteenth-century antiquary locally notorious for his flights of fancy, who has reputedly left some documents to the town which may or may not reside in the local library. It’s only just a matter of Asa somehow finding the key…

As a straightforward narrative there is plenty in The Windvale Sprites to keep the young reader reading: foolish adults, a resourceful and sensitive youngster tracking and attempting to trap a sprite, an abandoned cottage, a cellar with a secret. There is also a conservationist message, one in keeping with the essential morality of the fairytale tradition but here not ham-fistedly hammered home.

There is also plenty to grab the mature reader’s attention. Little jokes like the passing mention of a place called Cottingley (the famous early 20th-century faked fairy photos from the real Cottingley village even fooled Arthur Conan Doyle) and an oblique hint about Terry Jones’ Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book; the author’s own reminiscences of The Great Storm of 1987 which devastated a huge swathe of southern Britain, and a grownup’s natural curiosity as to how Asa will explain lying about going on a projected school trip. (Crook will sidestep the consequences of Asa’s escapade by subsequently penning The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth, set two centuries before.)

The author is best known as an actor for the British TV version of The Office and for his appearance in the franchise of The Pirates of the Caribbean, and more recently for writing and starring in the The Detectorists, a gentle comedy series about responsible men who go metal detecting for ancient treasure. He has also illustrated The Midvale Sprites, his sprite drawings especially impressing this reader. Overall this is a diverting read, one which manages to preserve the quintessential otherness of the fairy being and which deserves to be better known.

Illustration by Mackenzie Crook

In an effort to support my local library this is the third borrowed book read and reviewed this year, the others so far being The Circus of Dr Lao and The Adjacent. This won’t be the last.

20 thoughts on “Flights of fancy

  1. This looks wonderful. Just when I thought fairies were probably on the way out you draw my attention to something that seems to reinvigorate the genre. I love the illustrations, and the story sounds intriguing. I can’t think of any child to buy this for, but I’m going to get myself a copy. Nice to discover yours is a library copy, Chris, perhaps I’ll try our local one, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For me, it’s an interesting take on an otherwise tired concept, a cross between a flower fairy and dragonfly with a hint of something on the cusp of malevolence if ever crossed. I wouldn’t say this was a perfect novel (the illustrations are a little variable for my tastes) but it’s certainly worth a second glance, especially if you spot it in the library!

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    1. I was, still am, really impressed by his thoughtful scripts for The Detectorists so was interested to see this, completed before he moved on to the first TV series. I could see aspects of the programmes prefigured here, love of the countryside and of antiquity in particular as well as the creation of sensitive protagonists.

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  2. This sounds and looks really interesting. I love books which children and adults can enjoy alike, they are ones that give you something new at every stage you read them. The illustrations in particular in this one make me want to see them all. Will keep a lookout for this one.

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    1. It’s also a book in praise of the solitary child, one who once they develop an obsessive interest in something follows it through and yet who retains a conscience and demonstrates compassion. A gently moral tale, this, but without preaching.

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    1. Frankly, I think these are two of the best (and the most otherworldly) but it’s clear that he loves visual stuff; maybe he also roughed up the storyboards for his Detectorists scripts as the visuals for those — especially the more pastoral shots — have been exquisitely nostalgic.

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  3. THAT GUY! It took me a second to remember him from The Office–he’s popped up in a couple other things, too, Stateside, like City of Ember. These drawings are GORGEOUS and the fact he draws any hint to Terry Jones’ hilarious work (I almost bought that book for Blondie during her Tinnkerbell phase (for my own sanity at the time), but thought better of it…hmm, she might find it amusing now…). Once more a kid solving mysteries without parents! 🙂 You know, maybe I’m more of a helicopter parent than I thought…

    Oh, pish on that. This sounds a thrill to read. A fine post, my friend! xxxxxxx

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