Welcome back to the Reading Rec series, where I rant about my favorite books and talk about how reading and analyzing them can make us better writers. Following last week’s post about where to start worldbuilding, today I’m looking at a story that takes place in a modern earth setting but includes fantastical elements, and how the authors fit those two worlds together. In the interest of not doing another long ramble, and to show how to simplify the process, I wanted to look at a shorter children’s book. The Spiderwick Chronicles is a 5-book middle-grade series by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black that follows the adventures of the Grace children as they encounter the faerie world.
Simon, Jared, and Mallory Grace move into their new house – the Spiderwick Estate. While exploring the old building, they find both a brownie (a type of house elf) named Thimbletack, and a field guide of types of faeries, written by the previous owner of the house. Thimbletack warns them that the guide is dangerous, but they ignore the warnings to get rid of it, and are soon swept on a grand adventure to protect their family from the magic forces that seek to destroy them. The premise of the story revolves around the field guide, which was later published as a companion book to the series. I found these books in the library as a kid, and spent months keeping my own field guide and looking for magic around my house because they make it seem so probable that it exists. Right under our noses!
The field guide opens with a forward from the author of the books that talks about the thought process in developing the Invisible World of faerie within the setting of rural modern day Maine. He asks, “What is Real?” Many children (like me) would ask him to validate their experiences of seeing faeries, or ask him if he’d ever seen one. He answers, “Who are we to say they aren’t real?” He uses the example of microbes: since they are tiny and humanity didn’t know that they existed for centuries, but that didn’t make them any less real in the past. Even now, they need special technology to see, like microscopes, and he only knows about them through the documentation of scientists that study them. In the case of biology, he couldn’t tell you what deep sea fish looks like without a field guide or reference book. Similarly, stories of unicorns began after an inter-continental game of “telephone” from rhinoceros sightings. It’s not too far of a jump to say that all of the creatures from folklore and myth really do exist, and we’re either not looking close enough or ignoring what we have documented.
Following from this initial premise of, “Natural History, but for Fantasy Creatures,” naturally the next question to ask is, “Why haven’t we found them?” Well, why is it difficult to find other mundane creatures that live around us? Many have camouflage! If you don’t know exactly what it is you’re looking for, you might pass right over that stealthy stick-bug.
Following the cause and effect of that question, Faeries have magic camouflage called “glamours” that make them invisible to human eyes. They can only be spotted by someone who has the Sight, or at “in-between” like dusk and dawn, or standing with one foot on land and one foot in the water. Some of these loopholes are supported by folklore, so it fits with the earlier premise, and the invisible world starts to take shape. If the fae don’t want to be seen, then they simply won’t be seen. That’s why most adults don’t believe in faeries and dismiss kids who claim they do exist – proof is hard to find and even harder to be documented and shared. Even if you could steal faerie gold and bring it back home with you, you might wake up to find it turned into dust.
So how does the field guide fit into this? If a document exists that catalogues different types of fae, their strengths, and their weaknesses, that could be very dangerous information in the wrong hands. Even more-so, since it was complied by the human Arthur Spiderwick and it is a simple book without glamours, it can be found and read by other humans without an issue. Now, anyone knows how to get the Sight and find their homes. It makes sense that the fae would fear the book, and seek to keep it from being found again, even if that means siccing a goblin horde on three kids.
The setup of the unfinished field guide also means that there’s an open end for adding more information as needed. Throughout the books, the kids find out more information about faeries and add their own notes, and different elements from folklore are brought into the story without contradicting any prior worldbuilding. It’s a clever way to leave avenues open to explore, but if something isn’t explained in-story, there’s also the precedent of folklore and fairy tales to fill in the gap. The scope of the worldbuilding is contained to the scope of the story, and answers the question of “What happens when the two worlds interact?” to create an entertaining story and leave you wondering…
What have I missed?
Did you ever go looking for faeries as a kid? Did you ever find any? If you saw my Runaways posts, I bet you can tell just how much this series influenced my imagination lol. I promised the next entry in this series would be short, so I hope this is a little more entertaining and easy to read than my TCOMC summary. Next week, I’ll do a deep dive on the worldbuilding of one of my own WIPs. If you have a preference on which story you’d like to see me cover, be sure to leave a comment and let me know!
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