Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Booraem

Last Halloween my 13-year-old daughter and her friends waved mascara wands and discovered wings in the costume chest. The fairy princess gown from her third birthday was stretched into a mini dress.

As I escorted the flock of fairies around our neighborhood, I felt a wave of nostalgia. After elementary school, all the fairy books and dolls had been passed onto my niece. Next year these big girls would be in high school and probably too old to trick-or-treat. Would this be my last night with the fae?

Alas not. Barrie Summy, host of our book review club, asked me if I wanted to review a new fairy book. The author, Ellen Booraem, is one of our reviewers and lives a couple hours up the coast from me in Maine. Ellen built a flimsy version of Durindana’s fairy house on Bear Island (her photo at right.)

Small Persons with Wings (don’t call them fairies) is as much about real world bullying as about magic. Poor Mellie has been called “Fairy Fat” ever since she failed to bring her winged little friend to kindergarten for show-and-tell. Seeking to escape her “runaway imagination,” Mellie started collecting facts about science and art, but the teasing continued through seventh grade.
Mellie is defiant and sassy: “I’m still round. I don’t wear eye makeup. I like words with lots of syllables. So sue me.”
When her family moves into a dilapidated old house in a new town, Mellie hopes for a fresh start. Then she discovers a drunk fairy in the crystal chandelier and thinks she’s going crazy. Again.

Although Small Persons with Wings is labeled ages ten and up, I think it would be better suited to ages ten and under. Mellie and her boy buddy Timmo are 13-year-olds but act like clever fifth graders. This nearly 300-page novel would be a good choice for advanced young readers or as a read-aloud bedtime story. Personally, I'm ready to say goodbye to cute fairies, but I can see how this imaginative tale would appeal to little girls. Ellen’s writing is magical.

My Interview with Ellen Booraem

Sarah: what sparked your interest in fairies?

Ellen (at right with fairy lights): I’ve always loved the familiar turned upside down, so I like books that combine the fantastic and the everyday. Fairies and other tiny creatures interested me in childhood because I liked imagining what our world would look like to someone very small.

Years later, doing fantasy role-playing on a forum, I developed the character of this hapless, overdressed fairy who kept flitting onto the scene and wreaking havoc. I grew very fond of her, and decided to write a book about her adventures in a world of human “giants.”

Small Persons with Wings features bullying of both humans and fairies. Were you bullied as a child? (Ellen at age 13 below.) 

I was bullied a bit in elementary school, being skinny and socially maladroit. Occasionally it was physical—I still remember being dragged across the girls’ room by my hair.

How awful! How did you deal with the bullies?

In all cases I reacted exactly the way my character Mellie does in SMALL PERSONS—I went stoic, kept my face impassive, didn’t let anyone know I was scared or hurt or embarrassed. I didn’t tell any adults about the physical stuff for fear of being called a wimp or a tattle-tale, a reaction I suspect is more common than we like to think. (The best advice, I think, is to tell an adult and get the behavior out in the open.)

What was your response to other children being bullied?

I’m ashamed to say that I was equally impassive when someone else was the target—there was a kid in junior high who was the butt of everyone’s ridicule, including the teacher’s sometimes. I never participated, but I also never spoke up in her defense. That haunts me now.

When I was updating my web site a couple of months ago, I looked around online for advice on how to react to bullying. seems like a pretty good site. I was astonished to find that “not reacting”—while the bullying is actually in progress, anyway—is actually a recommendation.

Childhood can be harsh.  What made you decide to write children's fiction?

One reason is that I am by nature a pie-eyed optimist: while books for children and teens are far from cheerful sometimes, no matter what horrible things happen there’s usually still a sense that the universe is a good place. Also, I love fantasy, and the teen years seem like they “go” with fantasy somehow. When your whole life is changing and you’re entering this strange new world, it’s not that much of a stretch to discover you’re really a supernatural creature or dating a demigod.

What led you to Maine?

We were looking for a rural place where we could afford to work part-time, so my partner Rob could paint and I could write. I ended up editing community newspapers, which was so fascinating that I never got back to fiction-writing until 2003, nineteen years later.

We live in a house we built with our own hands (photo at right). Before we built it, I’d figured you just went to the house store and bought one, so it was a great experience. My office window is upstairs on the right.

Can you tell us about your next book?

The working title is CONNOR’S BANSHEE, and it’s in very rough draft stage. A banshee is an Irish ancestral spirit who wails when a member of her family is about to die. Often, they’re maidens who died too young. My banshee shows up in South Boston and tells an Irish-American kid that a member of his family is about to die but she doesn’t know who or when or how. The story hinges on his attempt to stop the death. I’m trying to make it funny.

Thanks so much for inviting me on your blog, Sarah! This has been fun!

Small Persons with Wings was just released on January 20, 2011. It has gotten starred reviews from Publishers WeeklyKirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. Congratulations, Ellen!

Disclosure and Photo Credits: the author sent me the ARC to review. Author photo by Sherry Skeeter. Fairy house and real house photos by Ellen. Photo of Ellen at age 13, same age as her protagonist, from her yearbook.

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David Cranmer said...

Lovely interview, Sarah. The editing, writing, and Ms. Booraem building her own home. Now, that is very inspirational. Go Mainers!

A Cuban In London said...

What an honest interview! Truly, it was a pleasure reading your piece. Ellen's experiences of being bullied bring back back painful memories of my own time at secondary school. And her impassivity rang true as well when I recall that time. Thanks for the review and interview. I'm not surprised about the starred feedback. It sounds like a good read.

Greetings from London.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Sarah

Enjoyed the bookreview and interview!

I was also bullied during my school years-more in high school for being an overweight kid. I agree with A Cuban In London-yes painful memories.


Tracy :)

tina said...

That's a beautiful house they built! Bullying is such an awful thing I think she handled it perfectly. It is tough to be a kid.

walk2write said...

Great job with the review and interview, Sarah! From what she says about her childhood, it sounds like Ellen has grown up to become a very sympathetic person. Don't you think that some writers' works seek to redeem--or, at the very least, understand--mistakes/omissions made in their youth? It looks like this one might.

Carol said...

Sarah, Your style of reviewing and interviewing is so enjoyable and personal . . . taking the reader to a intimate space with the author. Ellen's book sounds enchanting and reading of her own story . . . seeing her at the same age as her character and discovering her talent in editing and building! Well it all seems so real and inviting . . . woven with threads of fantasy and sadness. How children can mirror the wrongs in the larger world . . . bullying and the fears we live with while growing up. Too sad but it sounds like Ellen deals with these issues in a hopeful, fun and tearful manner at the same time. I love the idea of a drunken fairy living in a chandelier! Lovely!

Rose said...

Another great review, Sarah! I was never into fantasy, but a book about fairies would have certainly enticed me when I was younger. I'm glad you said that you thought this would appeal to younger readers. My 7 soon-to-be eight-year-old granddaughter would enjoy this book. She loves fairy stories and is an advanced reader, though 300 pages might be a little daunting for her.

Ellen's comments about bullying are very interesting; I think we can all remember incidents where we were either intimidated or witnessed it ourselves. It seems to have gotten worse in recent years, and I'm glad that more people are being made aware of it. Every child should be able to feel safe.

Stacy Nyikos said...

This sounds like a full of heart and fun read. That whole learning to stick up for yourself thing is so pertinent for my family right now. It's hard stuff! If there is a character out there who can "show" my youngest how to find her voice and stick up for herself around other girls, we need that book. Sometimes it's another medium, and not just mom, that opens their eyes to the how and why.

Barrie said...

I've so been looking forward to this interview!And it's great! Ellen: They just did a big thing on bullying at Child #4's elementary school. And guess what? The kids were told not to show emotion. I cannot believe you built that house. Incredible! Looking forward to reading this book!

Elena said...

I love her courage and the way she fight life. Thanks for the interview.

Sarah Laurence said...

David, I loved the bit about Ellen building her house too. It’s so Maine. My kids’ first piano teacher also built his own house and from timber cleared from a small portion of his land. It’s nice to have you living here too.

ACIL and Tracy, I’m sorry that you were bullied too. I think many sensitive/artsy people were. I was as well. It helps to have Ellen and others share their experiences and give advice to the next generation via literature and blogs.

Tina, isn’t her house gorgeous in the snow? We’re having a huge blizzard today, falling at 3 inches/hour. I think bullying is handled better these days, but it hasn’t gone away.

W2W, yes, blogging and writing fiction is a wonderful way to work things out. It helps both the writer and the reader.

Carol, thank you! I do like to hear the personal story behind the book and to connect with the child inside the children’s author. Ellen’s book is actually quite light and funny despite the painful topic of bullying. Dramatizing it with fairies makes it fun.

Rose, this book reads pretty easily but the occasional lines in French and Latin, the big vocabulary words as well as the length might make it challenging for a young child to read on her own. If she can read Harry Potter, which is even longer, she’d be fine with this. It’s wonderful to have challenging books that are innocent enough for younger advanced readers.

Stacy, the message of this book is more that you need a pal to support you if you’re being bullied. Still, it’s empowering to have a bullied girl help a bullied fairy and in the process make a human friend who will help her to avoid bullying at her new school. I’m sorry that your daughter is having a hard time with her peers. Mine did too in 6th and 7th grade, but matters improved dramatically when we made a complaint to the head of the school. It also helped to have friends stick up for her. The bullies in the end lost their popularity due to being so mean to a sweet girl like my daughter. She is having a good year in 8th grade. I agree that books are a great way for kids to find answers, beyond a lecture from a concerned mom. Good luck!

Barrie, cool to see the experts are in line with Ellen’s advice. Thanks for sharing and for hosting another book review club!

Elena, I admire Ellen’s courage too.

All, these are wonderful, heart-felt comments; thank you for sharing your personal experience!

Sarahlynn said...

I think I would have loved this book in later elementary school, and I have a fae-loving (adult) sister I think would love it now! Fortunately, she has a birthday coming up in a few weeks so this is perfect timing.

As always, I enjoy your honest reviews.

(Gorgeous home, Ellen!)

Linda McLaughlin said...

Good review and interview. Bullying is such an important and pertinent topic right now.

Amanda Summer said...

fairies aren't my thing, either, but i like this author's take on the genre, and the drunk fairy in the chandelier is a great touch. banshees, however, sound a little darker - that book has a compelling premise.

yet another great interview, sarah ~ thanks!

Stacy said...

Great interview, Sarah and Ellen.

It sounds like middle grade and YA books these days are much more willing to tackle real world issues. In my day, it was all Sweet Valley and Baby-Sitters Club.

Love the cover! Beautiful!

Sarah Laurence said...

Sarahlynn, sounds like a good match for your sister. Happy birthday to her!

Linda, thanks!

Amanda, I’m not a cutesy fairy person either, but a drunk one in the chandelier was funny.

Stacy, yes children’s fiction is growing up.

Ellen Booraem said...

Thanks again for the great interview questions, Sarah--and thanks to all the rest of you for commenting. And for the compliments on the house! I feel compelled to point out that my partner, a painter (meaning artist) who had worked as a carpenter, took a year off to build it. I was employed full time, so I worked on it on weekends and vacations, not always deftly. Some of our windows still stick because I over-insulated them.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sarah, I always find your interviews with novelists fascinating with glimpses into their lives,their writing techniques and the motivations behind their writing. EB is another interesting subject and her fascination with all things fantastical is most intriguing.

For my own part, I have always found Fairies rather sinister and was not even keen as a very small child of leaving a milk tooth under my pillow for the Tooth Fairy to visit and replace with a sixpence. I was happy to forego the money if I could go to sleep untroubled by a pending Fairy visit!!

Ellen Booraem said...

It occurs to me that I should mention to parents of younger readers that there is an incident involving a tampon. Nothing gross or explicit, but the concept is introduced. Just so you know!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

That was delightful to read! Sounds like Ellen is handling difficult topics with aplomb...bravo!

Both books sound very intriguing.

Sarah Laurence said...

Edith, I so enjoy interviewing authors, and it’s nice to hear that our conversations are interesting to others. There is one bad fairy in this book, but the rest are mostly good. I’ve always found the tooth fairy rather strange too. Realism has greater appeal to me.

Ellen, thanks for the warning, but these days some girls are menstruating as early as third grade. I was perplexed by the “ages 10 and up” marketing label since your story is so innocent, but perhaps it was due to tampons, big words and novel length. I still think your book would appeal more to elementary school children than to middle/junior high kids. As a parent of advanced readers, it was hard finding challenging but age appropriate books for third through fifth graders. Your book fits the bill well.

Alyssa, yes, Ellen blended fantasy and real world bullying with finesse.

kayerj said...

this sounds like a book my grandaughters would enjoy very much. I appreciate your review and interview with the author. It's also nice that she belongs to Barrie's book club. Thanks so much for stopping by.

septembermom said...

Loved this interview Sarah. I think this book will be a valuable resource for many parents and young girls. My daughter is five now, but I want to get her a copy for the not so far away future of potential bullies. And she just loves fairies!!

Susan R. Mills said...

Great interview. The bullying part is sad, though. I just don't understand how kids can be so cruel.

Bee said...

What really struck me, and several other commenters have also mentioned it, is that emotional passivity (or shutting down) that takes place when someone is bullied. I was bullied when I was about that age and it took me YEARS to get over it in the sense that I learned to really withhold myself.

I was SO impressed that Booraem built her own house. Her creativity obviously extends to more than one outlet.

Sarah Laurence said...

Kaye, do enjoy this with your granddaughters.

Septembermom, it sounds perfect for your daughter. I hope her future remains rich in fairies and poor in bullies.

Susan, kids can be crueler than adults. Sad but true.

Bee, I’m so sorry to hear that you were bullied too. That’s an interesting observation about shutting down, like going into emotional shock. Ellen notes that her carpenter husband did most of the house building, but I’m still impressed like you. It is a lovely house.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

Interesting review Sarah. And inspiring, her commitment to her chosen career. Does she have any children, I wonder? I enjoyed her honesty; and the fact that she is a pie-eyed optimist. It was hard enough for us to keep 'Santa' alive after our kids turned 10, so a magical book that is as enthralling as Small Persons with Wings (and a good title too), is good to share.

☆sapphire said...


Sorry to leave a comment very late, for I've been thinking these days about what we call "fairies". Haruki's new novel features fairy-like beings too. Not winged, though. They are called "Little People". I guess W.B.Yeats called them in the same way. I'm wondering why people have repeatedly told about them, these supernatural beings, in stories and poems since olden days.
I enjoyed your review and interview very much! It sounds like an interesting book. And thanks for sharing the beautiful photos of the latest post! Love "shadow stripes"!!

cynthia newberry martin said...

Wonderful post. Love the title Small Persons with Wings, and Ellen's house, which she built!, looks so cozy. My favorite tidbit was the fact that she was derailed from fiction for 19 years and then came back to it. Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mama Shujaa, I don’t know if Ellen has children or not, but she certainly understands their mentality. She does keep the magic alive.

Sapphire, I can’t wait for Haruki Murakami’s new novel to be translated into English. He’s one of my favorite authors. How interesting that this one is about fairies. He’s certainly into the mystical and surreal, and I can imagine his fairies would be anything but cute.

Cynthia, it is encouraging for us to hear that as wanna be novelists of a mature age.