This book packs such an emotional whollop at its heart (though, fortunately, Graham doesn’t beat us upside the head with it) that it makes me all choked up is what it does. What we have here are two wee members of the tooth fairy family. Before we even get to the title page (Graham doesn’t waste his time with his storytelling), one of them, April Underhill, is taking a phone call on her cell. “‘You’re his grandma? No, my sister, Esme, and I don’t do tooth visits yet. Our mom and dad always . . . You want US? We shall be there. I PROMISE.'” On the next spread, the title page spread, we see the young girls’ tiny home, a lovely cottage on the side of a tree stump next to a major highway — and I mean major, as in huge semis are barreling by. One gets the very definite sense that times have changed and that their home was perhaps once … well, less life-threatening. Indeed, on the very initial endpages, we see them swinging, not far from their home, on their tiny, fairy-sized swing, which is next to a huge, discarded bottle. Life isn’t what it used to be, we sense. Graham expertly sets the tone right off the bat.
As the girls fly through the front door, we see—though the reader will have figured this out already—that Graham will be treating observant readers to all kinds of wonderful details: For one, who knew the tooth fairy family hung retrieved teeth from their ceiling? As I type that, I understand how it can seem rather macabre, but those of you familiar with Graham’s work have to imagine here that this is the endearing type of Graham picture-book family we’ve seen in his later work. Picture the very contemporary, unconventional, laid back, tattooed father of this family, but just add a ponytail and tooth fairy wings, and you’ve got Dad Underhill, along with his mellow fairy family.
After April tells her Daddy that she and her sister will be collecting the tooth of one Daniel Dangerfield that very night, he tries to talk her out of it. “‘Tonight? April, you’re only seven,’ said her dad. ‘And three quarters,’ April added. ‘I promised.'” Their mother is also concerned. The girls remind her that she collected her first tooth at the age of six. “‘Well, that was long ago,’ said Mom. ‘Before the highway came. Foxes still chased hares on the hill, and things were different back then.'” Yes, times have changed, but Esme’s response? “Well, some things haven’t changed, Mommy….Children still lose their first teeth…and ducklings still have to take their first swim.”
Oh have mercy. Cue the parental heartstrings. Aaaaand: Tug! Esme has a point, but in the illustration that follows, we see her loving, concerned parents slumped over the dinner table, knowing the time has come to let them go, yet worried sick. I wish I could show you that illustration, as well as the ones on the following page, in which their parents help them pack for their trip (“‘This is important, April,’ said Dad. ‘To Daniel you are a . . . a . . . spirit of the air. You are magic. He must never see you”) and give them a hug so tender that your heart breaks—keeerrrrraaack—right in half. “Send me a text if you need to,” their mother says.
The wee tooth fairies on their cell phones, texting. I love it.
And I can’t give away the entire plot, except to say they make it and do their very best. There may be a blunder or two, but they take their mother up on her offer and text her for advice. (“Courage, pluck, and derring-do guide them most of the way—but a quick text message from Mommy ensures that the girls add the proper finishing touch to the job,” writes Publishers Weekly, calling it a “sweetly comic adventure.”) Before they leave, the girls, flying through the air, spot the grandma who had made the call, who appears as if she had been trying to stay awake for the big moment, but she’s fallen asleep in bed, slumped over her book. “We did it, Grandma. Our very first tooth,” they whisper into her ear, Graham bringing us full circle with the parallel here of another loving family, looking out for one another. And in the long list of funny details in the book, Esme spots the grandmother’s dentures, and April whispers, “no…we don’t take those. We have to go.” Did I mention that the Underhill family also has a pet dog, also with little tooth fairy wings? Children will delight in the details, not to mention the success the young girls have, breaking off on their own, proving their independence, succeeding in their first journey.
And another truly moving illustration, needless to say probably, is the one in which the worried, yet relieved, parents greet the young girls at the doorstep: “Mom and Dad hugged them till their wings crackled.” In the hands of a lesser picture book artist, this could have been all schmaltz, but Graham does this up with such subtlety, warmth, and veracity that it gets me every time. (After the girls show their parents the tooth, they proceed to unpack and get settled, Graham adding, “The girls drank hot elderberry juice and they were hugged some more.”) Using ink and watercolors, Graham renders the story with delicacy, emotion, and humor, infusing the tale with a real tenderness and much affection.
And remember Mama Underhill’s comment to her daughters about the Days of Yore and foxes and hares and such? Graham even brings us a brief, final epilogue of sorts that brings that full circle, too. (Sorry, I refuse to give it away, in case you want to read this one for yourself.) It’s a lovely ending.
If you missed this one in 2010, consider it highly recommended from Yours Truly.
APRIL AND ESME, TOOTH FAIRIES. Copyright © 2010 Bob Graham. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.