Milly’s Marvelous Mistakes by Peta Rainford
Peta, an author from the Isle of Wight, is also the book’s illustrator and you can see her love (and knowledge) of art all across its pages. You don’t have to look too closely to note that the fairy godmother is aesthetically reminiscent of Mexican artist Frida Khalo, or to spot Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Besides that, art is a centerpiece of the plot; there is even an art show. And the language when art is discussed, even in the simple language required for the young target audience (this is a children’s book after all, specifically recommended for 4-8 year olds), is that of someone for whom the language of art and art techniques is second hand.
Full disclosure, this was an ARC that came with the full author brief so I had a good sense of the plot and the author (this is her seventh book) before reading. The quirky cover opens to a rhyming tale and illustrations rich in colour, simple in design with the morale that things earned are better than things given, and that it’s okay to not be good at something.
Main character Milly May is frizzy haired and short of patience, with a fairy godmother who “clearly had some other wings/but not the other fairy things/she had no crown nor proper wand/nor was her hair the standard blonde”. The book is low key celebrating differentness and effort. Even as she grants Millly’s lazy wish to be good without effort, the fairy godmother cautions, “Your wish, my dear, is my command/my job’s to do what you demand…/but can I ask: are you sure/You couldn’t simply practice more?”
Milly, of course, does not take her advice and, here’s the thing, things work out for her. I mean, her biggest problem is everyone being amazed, bombarding her with praise and pressing her with questions about how she’d become a master artist over night (not in an accusatory way but in admiration). She even wins a coveted art prize.
But she’s not happy. And that’s the kicker. There is no external contrivance or convenience, comeuppance or catastrophe that prompts a shift in her attitude and behavior. Her change, largely internal, is subtle, and comes on reflection. Bottom line, she realizes she is not happy. She feels isolated from her peers and she’s aware that she didn’t really earn the prize. That lack of gratification, unprompted, is a good reminder to listen to one’s instincts – even if you get it wrong as Millie does initially. In time, your better angels (not even your fairy godmother, the better angel that lives inside you) will re-orient you (I mean assuming you have or are evolving a sense of right and wrong that aligns with your sense of feels good/doesn’t feel good). Millie grows. She assesses for herself the understanding that winning without effort or talent is empty, because it feels empty.
In a world of reality stars famous for being famous, many of them obsessed over by young people, it’s a timely reminder that talent and effort is still of greater value, and “to learn is the important part/not the finished work of art”.
The only sense of dissatisfaction I felt at the end…the fairy godmother told her that wishes come in threes, and she used two during the story… what happened to her third wish? I need to know. Though I suppose reinforcing the message of the book, this could be intentional; who needs wishes when they can practice, practice, practice.
ETA: If you’ve read the book, you already know that I was wrong, that she did make three wishes. It’s subtle (so you have to be paying attention) but it’s there. Read closely.
…and still practice, practice, practice.