What the Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy
Candlewick, 2007 295 pgs.
Dinah, Zeke, and baby Rebecca Ruth are being looked after by Mom's young cousin, Gage, during a hurricane. An emergency (Mom needs to get insulin for her diabetes), which is not at first revealed, has taken the parents away and into Gage's care. To keep the kids calm during a worst of the storm over-night, Gage tells them a story from his childhood; when he met a tooth fairy, or as they like to be called, a skibberee. The plot now goes back and forth between the harrowing night of the hurricane and the adventures of What-the-DIckens, the name Gage himself bestowed on the infant skibberee. What-the-Dickens escapes a cat, gets adopted by a bird, extracts a tooth from a lion, and is mistaken by an old lady as the angel of death before an amazing thing happens. He meets another Skibberee, named Pepper, who, after initially being annoyed by him, takes pity on What-the-Dickens and brings him home to her colony. Once at the colony What-the-Dickens meets others of his kind and learns Skiberee history. Unfortunately, he is greeted with suspicion and asked to leave. Pepper, now in jeopardy herself for endangering the colony by What-the-Dicken's presence, must complete an impossible mission to prove herself. This mission leads Pepper and What-the-Dickens back to Gage, who has an important decision to make: chronic loneliness or keeping a skibberee as a pet even though they need to be free. What-the-Dickens and Pepper's story is resolved, more or less. The children and Gage see headlights in the distance: could it be their parents? We never find out, but know that the children will be okay, having survived the worst of the storm and having learned to rely on their own inner strengths.
Gregory Maguire has done for the tooth fairy what he has formally done for the Wicked Witch of the West: taken the folklore behind the character and added to it. I just read an article by Jane Yolen in The Hornbook which discusses "fakelore", changing folklore, which some critics argue against. Yolen argues that folklore by its very nature is organic and always growing and changing. I love that Maguire thinks about characters from our literary traditions and reworks them, breathing new life into the stories. The Tooth Fairy is an under-explored character in our folkloric cannon. She pops up here and there, usually as a minor character, and is the focus of several picture books. I love that she gets her own back story at last! What the Dickens is a classic story-within-a-story. Maguire expertly jumps back and forth without the reader getting confused. The Skibberee story line is believable and exciting. Gage (and Maguire) leave the question of reality open to the reader as well as to the children listening during the hurricane. Dinah and Zeke are fully developed and realistic characters. They both grow during the course of the book and find true inner courage. This book will appeal to both girls and boys equally. It is not an easy read, even though the margins are big. Maguire never sells out when it comes to storytelling and vocabulary. Every word he uses is intentional. Even though the book is for a young audience, it is written with supreme care and never talks down to the reader or is tongue-in-cheek concerning tooth fairies. Both story lines are left a bit open, leaving the reader something to think about, but Maguire offers enough closure for the reader to be reassured that everything will be all-right. After reading What the Dickens children will be setting up webcams in their rooms in order to catch skibberees in action when they have teeth under their pillows.