Call them tooth fairies, call them skibbereen. Whatever you call them, be prepared to realize they are real or are they?
That conundrum is at the heart of this cleverly constructed story-within-a-story by Gregory Maguire, whose novels Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister have lured adults back into fairy-tale worlds. What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy, both the book and the charming eponymous character, will do the same for middle-grade readers, even reluctant ones.
The frame story opens on a tempest-tossed night with the three Ormsby children Dinah, big brother Zeke and baby Rebecca Ruth huddling in a scrappy bungalow, supervised by older cousin Gage. With the trio in dire need of distraction, Gage spins a mesmerizing tale of What-the-Dickens, a tooth fairy hatched at twilight in a tin can. It's hard to resist Gage's tale of What-the-Dickens, a filmy winged orphan who knows not what, or who, he is. He soon meets an array of curious creatures from a cacophonous rust-throated grisset to McCavity, a cat who prompts What-the-Dickens to explore the world beyond his tuna can. And what a world it is! Each ensuing adventure including the breathtaking extraction of a tiger tooth sets What-the-Dickens on the path of learning about the secret lives of skibbereen. But it isn't until he happens upon Pepper, a pert girl skibberee, that he discovers more about their often dangerous tooth-gathering missions. As Gage's charges fall in and out of sleep, his fantastic tale continues. Later, Gage injects himself as a character in the tooth fairy saga, prompting Dinah to wonder if the whole story is fact or stormy night fiction.
Maguire, a wordsmith extraordinaire, does a seamless job of interconnecting both stories. Vibrant descriptions of everything from storms to birthday candles are inextricably woven into the fabric of the book, creating an almost palpable atmosphere. This playful tale is an ideal read-aloud bedtime story. Just remember to tuck a tooth under the pillow you never know who might be visiting.
Sharon Verbeten is a former children's librarian and writer from De Pere, Wisconsin.