hide captionMagical Miniatures: An army of "brownies" greets 8-year-old Olive inside Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel. "Brownies" are a breed of fairy characterized by industriousness, three-piece suits and penchant for carrying out household duties.
As a child, author Lesley M.M. Blume had an active imagination. She attempted old-fashioned spells in hopes of conjuring up fairies and envisioned miniature men running in and out of the mysterious little doors along the Lincoln Tunnel.
Modern Fairies, Dwarves Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate By Lesley M.M. Blume Hardcover, 256 pages Knopf Books for Young Readers List Price: $16.99
Now an adult, Blume has used her childhood fascination with the fantastic to craft a contemporary field guide to the fairy world of present-day Manhattan. It's called Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties, and, for a book about fairies, it's not as sweet as you'd expect.
"Traditionally, children's fairy tales have not been very nice and this book, while it is modern, also returns to those dark roots of children's literature," Blume tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Look at the Grimms' fairy tales, for example. [Or] When you see the original Little Mermaid, it most certainly did not feature singing and dancing crabs and shellfish."
At the same time, Blume says she's updated the usual fantasy fare by making the world of fairies more accessible to children — literally.
"You no longer have to leave unicorn hairs and other now-arcane objects on the hearth to invite fairies to visit," she says. "My book tells you how to connect with that world using objects found in every household or supermarket today."
In Modern Fairies, gummy bears and animal crackers are all you need to summon fairy visitors — and a drive through the Lincoln Tunnel is all you need to spot them.
Blume says she never stopped wondering about those early childhood fantasies of little men running in and out of the doors of the Lincoln Tunnel — and now, she knows all about them.
"Behind these doors are not nuts and bolts or workers munching on sandwiches," Blume says. "There is a fantastical dwarf forest and they are harvesting apple-size rubies, and you'll be very, very surprised to hear how those rubies show up in the modern world."
hide captionModern Fairies illustrator David Foote's depictions of waves were inspired by Japanese woodblock prints.
Modern Fairies illustrator David Foote's depictions of waves were inspired by Japanese woodblock prints.
In another of Blume's stories, "A Face Made From Flowers," a little girl is teased incessantly by her beautiful sisters because she herself isn't beautiful.
"All she wants is to be made beautiful," Blume says. "She encounters a curious breed of fairies who live in a fairy ring in her backyard called flower fairies and she asks them to make her beautiful, as if that will solve all of her problems."
But, of course, it doesn't. "A Face Made From Flowers" gives a taste of the injustice that permeates Blume's book, the characters of which often end up disappointed. And Blume says there's good reason for that.
"I think that it's important to realize that not every problem in life has a neat solution," she says, "and even if it did, that solution wouldn't necessarily bring the results that you wanted."
Excerpt: 'Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, And Other Nasties'
by Lesley M. M. Blume
Modern Fairies, Dwarves Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate By Lesley M. M. Blume Hardcover, 256 pages Knopf Books for Young Readers List Price: $16.99
You've likely heard of the famous Algonquin Hotel on Manhattan's West 44th Street, which sits like a tired, dignified old man with his back turned to the nearby carnival of Times Square.
There was always something shady and calm about the Algonquin, which makes sense when you think about it. After all, hundreds of years ago, a magnificent oak tree lived where the hotel now stands.
But then along came settlers, who eventually decided that they needed hotels with things like claw-footed bathtubs and room service. And so they raised their axes, and many thousands of chops and hacks later, the magnificent oak tree was gone and its wood was made into the frame of the Algonquin Hotel.
It used to be quite a peculiar place. When you pushed through the heavy glass-and-oak doors into the lobby, the air grew heavier and wreathed around your shoulders like a fur shawl. This was all very strange until you realized that this is what it feels like when time is slowing down.
If you needed proof that this was happening, you could have watched the old grandfather clock facing the concierge desk, which sighed rather than chimed; its spindly hands circled the yellowing clock face more slowly than the hands of every other clock in the world, and yet somehow the time was always right. A teacup that fell in the Algonquin took longer to hit the floor than anyplace else in the world.
The Algonquin still managed to run like a normal hotel, despite the honey-in-winter pace of life there. Somehow towels got washed and pressed and arrived with lavender sweetness in all of the bathrooms; crisp newspapers appeared outside the door of each room at dawn; hot meals were turned out of the kitchen in a timely manner, although usually in need of a little salt. But no one at the Algonquin could figure out exactly how things ran so smoothly.
Not the ancient, white-gloved waiters, most of whom were as old as the grandfather clock; nor the kitchen staff; nor the chambermaids; and certainly not the sleepy, disheveled manager of the hotel, Mr. Harold Kneebone. When pressed on the subject, Mr. Kneebone would always say:
"Who can say for sure what makes the clock tick, or the sun rise and set, or the wheat grow? These things just happen, that's all."
And then, more often than not, he would nestle his face into his forearms and sail off into a soulful, sweet little nap.
However, two Algonquin residents understood exactly why the establishment ran like clockwork.
The first was a big, fat orange cat with yellow eyes named Mathilde, who lived in a little diorama of a room carved into one of the lobby walls. A golden-lettered wooden sign dangled above the cubby and proclaimed:
And the second resident in the know was Olive, the eight-year-old daughter of the hotel chef.
Olive was especially good at two things: making fruit salads and keeping secrets. Mathilde was her best friend, and when fruit-salad duty didn't keep Olive in the kitchen, the girl and the cat sat in their favorite corner of the lobby behind a potted palm.
One evening, the old headwaiter peeked around the palm to see what they were up to. Their heads were turning from side to side in unison.
"What are you looking at, an invisible tennis match?" asked the headwaiter warily.
"Nope," said Olive.
"Well, what, then?" pressed the headwaiter.
Mathilde settled her chin onto her paws, her yellow eyes tracing invisible mice darting across the floor.
Not that the headwaiter would have believed Olive if she'd told him the truth: that she and Mathilde were watching brownies.
Not many people today are familiar with brownies, indisputedly the friendliest species of fairy. Tiny, wingless creatures, brownies wear hats made from nutshells and dapper little three-piece suits and have a gentle sort of magic mostly used for practical jokes.
Usually found in places where large operations are going on, like factories and, of course, hotels, brownies always like to run things—whether they've been invited to help or not. They adhere to strict routines, which makes them excellent workers. But be warned: nothing makes a brownie behave more badly than a disrupted routine.
In the old days, brownies lived in trees and when they died, their spirits became one with those trees. Generations of brownies had lived in the Algonquin oak tree before it got chopped up and made into the hotel itself. Since then, the descendants of the original Algonquin brownies had adopted the hotel as their home, and as you probably guessed, those brownies—not the old waiters or Mr. Kneebone—were the ones running the establishment so well.
Excerpted from Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate by Lesley M. M. Blume; illustrated by David Foote Copyright 2010 by Lesley M.M. Blume. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House Inc.