Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Fumbling Through Fantasy: King Oberon's Forest by Hilda van Stockum (1957)

In King Oberon's Forest, the three dwarf brothers, Alban, Botolph, Ubald are known for being unfriendly and antisocial. On Halloween night, as a trick on this trio of curmudgeons, the other residents of the forest leave a fairy baby on their doorstep. When the brothers find the baby, named Felix, they are completely unsure how to care for him, but over the coming months, they slowly develop the skills of fatherhood, cooking for their unusual child, bathing him, curing his strange illnesses and even teaching him to read. When it becomes clear, however, that Felix longs for companionship beyond the tree in which the brothers live,  the three dwarfs find themselves torn between their love for their son and their desire for peace and privacy.

I found this playful fantasy to be a delightful and charming story. The scenes of the dwarfs' early days of parenthood felt very true to what real-life new parents go through with their new babies, and their slow realization that their lives can be enriched by the companionship of their neighbors is a touching lesson about the value of community. The setting, too, is a wonderful playground for the imagination, as magical creatures and talking animals live side-by-side and embody many of the quirks and foibles of humanity. 

One odd storyline stood out to me as unnecessary and borderline inappropriate for the intended audience. This was the behavior of Mr. Red Squirrel who is a bit of a ladies' man and frequently leaves his wife at home with many children in order to wander about imagining himself as a brave knight. I thought he was a very real character in some ways from an adult's point of view, but in a book with so many other wholesome lessons about family life, his wayward behavior felt a bit more mature than I would have liked, even for the middle grade level at which the book is written.

Also worth noting is the fact that Van Stockum's daughter illustrated this book when she was just 21 years old. The drawings of Felix, in particular, have a sweetness and impishness to them that reveals Brigid Marlin's talent for art as well as the playfulness and innocence of her youth. Indeed, Brigid Marlin (now 83) continued to work as an artist in her adult life, and you can see her work on her website.

My oldest daughters were just turning 4 and 6 at the time we read this novel aloud, and they both loved it. They really enjoyed seeing baby Felix grow up, and they loved all the magical elements the story introduced. It also made a nice non-spooky read for us in the weeks before Halloween, which I think is the ideal time to read this story. I gave the book four stars, and will gladly read it again when my little kids are bigger.

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