Many years ago my daughter dressed up for Hallowe'en as (her choice, her words) a "princess-fairy-angel-bride."* Friends teased me about "gender girl's" choice. But the part I remember best about it is the wings she insisted on having, that made the get-up a "fairy" or an "angel" rather than just a pretty girl. When did fairies get cute?
Today my students read and discussed several "stolen child" poems from the nineteenth century, including "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" (Browning), "The Fairies" (Allingham), and "The Stolen Child" (Yeats). It's not clear what, exactly, the Piper is, but he has fairy-like qualities: he dresses funny, he has magical powers, and he steals kids. In the other two it's even clearer: fairies are weird and dangerous, though not (perhaps) actually malevolent. They live in relationship to the human world, but they do not love it. And they can do things that hurt us, though their intentions are not entirely clear.
In some recent novels that I loved (Blackbringer, How to Ditch Your Fairy), it's really clear that fairies aren't particularly cute or even helpful; they do what they do, and there are consequences for us but that's not their primary concern. Tinkerbell (the original, in Peter and Wendy) is actively hostile to Wendy, if not to the other children. So are the cute fairies derived from fairy godmothers? (Though, as I recall, the one in Disney's Cinderella is dumpy, not cute at all.) Are they derived from the Disney Peter Pan? Or am I missing something here? Because, really, the cute fairy is as bad as the rainbow-colored unicorn--a perversion of the mythology. I know the YA authors may come after me for defending the unicorn* (a glorious and scary creature, really, much better than a zombie). But what about fairies?
*She hates for me to tell this story, but it's totally true.
**(Diane Peterfreund does that much better anyway)
Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.