I’ve got cousins and sisters on the mind today in the form of two new nonfiction picture books on shelves (or, in one case, coming very soon to shelves). Both include stories of two girls — bound together by blood and friendship — with extraordinary bonds.
First up is Marc Tyler Nobleman’s Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real, illustrated via elegant watercolors, cut paper, and digital collage by Eliza Wheeler. This is the well-known story of Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, the tight-knit cousins who, in 1917, shocked the world with a set of photographs, ones that pictured them outdoors with fairies frolicking near them. During this time, Frances and her mother were living in Cottingley, England. They had moved there from South Africa to live with their relatives, while Frances’ father served in World War I.
The fairy photos the girls showed their family became the subject of great scrutiny after their publication in a general-interest UK magazine, called The Strand. Many believed the girls had proven the very existence of fairies, but in 1983, when both women were elderly, Elsie revealed they had faked the photos. “Neither girl,” Nobleman writes, “could have had any idea that a backyard prank on their parents would blow up into a front-page prank on the world.”
This true story is fascinating on its own, but with his closing author’s note Nobleman thoughtfully and satisfyingly brings the story’s threads together in a way that is applicable to information-seeking young people of the 21st century. Noting that the girls’ photos went “viral . . . ninety years before social media,” he then discusses the importance of recognizing doctored photos in this day and age (noting these events are a reminder, even today, that “people who want to believe do believe”) and of investigating to determine the truth of something, not merely accepting it without careful consideration. The existence of the internet, he adds, “doesn’t mean you can kick back and think less” but, instead, it “forces you to think more.” He also, touchingly, makes clear the respect he has for the two girls whom many deemed liars and the perpetrators of one of the most famous hoaxes, writing:
“… Frances and Elsie felt stuck in their fairy story. They wouldn’t change it less because they
feared being labeled as liars but more so because they didn’t want to make others feel bad
for believing. I loved them for that.”
Author and sports journalist Howard Bryant scores an ace (a tennis term seems obligatory here) with Sisters & Champions, his picture book biography of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the world’s greatest athletes. Illustrated by the award-winning artist Floyd Cooper, it will be on shelves next week. With an emphasis on the influence their parents had in their careers — particularly, their father (“No one ever laughed at Richard Williams, at least not to his face,” the book opens) — Bryant kicks the story off in the girls’ childhood and ends with their present-day rise to fame.
In the book’s opening spreads, Bryant notes the obstacles the girls faced: They lived in Compton, “a real tough, sometimes scary part of Los Angeles”; their father didn’t know anything about tennis (yet was still determined his girls would be champions one day); their father was cognizant of the unfair advantage many boys had over girls in sports, choosing tennis because he believed it “treated girls more fairly”; they weren’t rich, and “people without money, they said, weren’t supposed to dream so big”; and they were black. Black people, their father always heard, “weren’t supposed to play tennis.” Furthermore, Richard had big dreams for both girls and, Bryant writes, “it was hard enough for one person in a family to become world-famous, but two?”
Can we take a moment to appreciate how very much Floyd Cooper nails the women’s likenesses here? It’s impressive. He’s a master portraitist. He also knows how to build great tension in the spreads depicting the moments during which the two sisters competed against one another. In one, he shows the girls’ parents watching from the stands. After noting the women’s rise to world championship status, Bryant writes: “Still, it hurt so much to play against each other. Neither sister wanted to see the other lose. When they competed for a championship, Mom and Dad could barely watch.” Here, Cooper paints the worried parents in the foreground, and behind them are the tense faces of those seated behind them, watching the match with acute concentration. The moment is bathed in a warm yellow sunlight.
There is a sharp focus in the book on the two sisters’ special bond and friendship; it lies at the heart of this biography, and the women’s stories are remarkable. It’s high time they had their own picture book tribute.
The Kirkus review notes that Fairy Spell is “deftly-pitched” to young readers, and I think the same can be said for Sisters & Champions. Two remarkable stories in two well-crafted pieces of nonfiction. Don’t miss them.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
FAIRY SPELL: HOW TWO GIRLS CONVINCED THE WORLD THAT FAIRIES ARE REAL. Text copyright © 2018 by Marc Tyler Nobleman. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Eliza Wheeler. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.
SISTERS & CHAMPIONS: THE TRUE STORY OF VENUS AND SERENA WILLIAMS. Text copyright © 2018 by Howard Bryant. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Floyd Cooper. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Philomel Books, New York.