Critical Thinking Exercise 1: What’s real and what isn’t? How do you tell the difference?
Some children (and even grownups) have told me The Fairy Ring can’t be a true story because fairies are not real. To which I reply, the book is a true story about some real- life girls who took pictures of painted cardboard fairies.
child’s drawing of fairy headgear
- Question: Do fairies have to be real for the story of Elsie and Frances to be true?
- Question: If the story of Elsie and Frances is true, is it all true? Or did the author make some of it up?
One way of evaluating information is to look at the sources the author has used. Students might want to take a look at the sources from which The Fairy Ring is drawn:
- Are they primary sources such as reports, documents, and eyewitnesses? Or secondary sources (such as books about hoaxes in general, fairies in general, etc.?)
- Now compare the sources in The Fairy Ring with the information available on the Internet. Check out the Wikipedia article on the Cottingley Fairies. Are the sources quoted in Wikipedia primary, or secondary?
- Which sources are most likely to result in reliable information?
Exercise Two: Paper Trails
Like crime-solving, writing history is a matter of detective work.
Unlike characters in fiction, the people portrayed in non-fiction live in the real world, where they leave paper trails. Curious readers can follow the trails left by some of the real people in The Fairy Ring. Below are some suggestions:
To find the source of the stories in Chapter Eighteen (“The Glen Was Swarming”) about the supposed fairy sightings of Mr. Hodson the “clairvoyant,” you can consult the “Source Notes” at the end of The Fairy Ring for Chapter Eighteen.
There you will find, near the bottom of page 174, the note that reads “Gnomes and Fairies…. Elsie sees a small imp.” That note tells you that the account of those sightings is drawn from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book The Coming of the Fairies,pages 108-121.
If you obtain a copy of The Coming of the Fairies and begin at page 108, you will find Geoffrey Hodson’s full and detailed account of the swarming glen. (If your local library doesn’t have a copy of The Coming of the Fairies, you can ask the librarian about Interlibrary Loan, and he or she can most likely get the book for you.)
Both Elsie and Frances thought Mr. Hodson had a very good imagination.
Question: What do you think?
The Inquiry Continues
Want to learn more about Mr. Hodson?
If you check the Bibliography of The Fairy Ring under “Other Works Consulted,” you’ll see Fairies at Work and Play, by none other than …Geoffrey Hodson. In it are many, many more descriptions of fairies he claimed he saw in places all over England.
Question: Do you believe Mr. Hodson really thought he saw fairies? Why or why not?
Other Paper Trails
If you browse a bit further under “Other Works Consulted,” you’ll find a book called The Doyle Diary. It’s the sketchbook of Charles Altamont Doyle, the father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world’s most famous detective.
The sketchbook shows all manner of strange creatures, including fairies. At the time Charles Altamont Doyle drew them, he lived in an insane asylum.
Questions: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed all his life in fairies. Why do you think he did? What effect do you think his father’s time in an insane asylum had on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? How could you find out?
One thing leads to another
One of the things I like about doing research is that often you make discoveries that may not necessarily answer your questions, but that lead you off in other, interesting directions.
If you were to read a biography Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you might learn that Sir Arthur’s uncle, Richard Doyle, was a famous illustrator of fairies.
You can find many of his paintings online by searching for “Richard Doyle artist” and choosing images. But an online search is only one way.
On the shelf of your public library you might (if you are lucky) find a gorgeous illustrated volume of Richard Doyle’s fairies. That book would likely have a bibliography, leading you to yet more interesting books. And shelved right next to it you could find other, related, books you might not have thought of searching for online.
One book leads to another, like a trail of clues.
A footnote, in which we enter the world of fiction
I first discovered Sherlock Holmes when our fifth grade teacher read us The Adventure of the Speckled Band. After that I read all the other Sherlock Holmes stories.
And when I was seventeen, and still interested in Sherlock Holmes, my father gave me a book called The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by William S. Baring-Gould. That book includes a wealth of fascinating detail about the long-gone London inhabited by the fictional detective.
You may have seen Sherlock Holmes on T.V. or in the movies. But have you ever read about the “real” (meaning original, but still fictional) Sherlock Holmes?
You might try it, and see where it leads.
Exercise Three: Wild Boy
Take a look at the bibliography for Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron. Can you find the paper trails that might lead to more information about some of the real people in Wild Boy?
Are there real people in Wild Boy who play important roles, yet don’t seem to have left any paper trails? Who are they? (Answer: Claire Saussol and Madame Guerin)
Many people who play important roles in history do not leave paper trails. Why is this? Who, in general, do these people tend to be?
Often, an intriguing true story filled with mystery serves as the basis for historical fiction. It is called fiction because the author’s imagination, not known fact, is the basis for parts of the story.
In a work of historical fiction, real life people who have not left much in the way of paper trails often play starring roles. Can you think of real people in the wild boy’s story who would make interesting characters in a work of fiction?
Visit the “Creative Writing Exercise” page to find the beginning of story I wrote to show how one of the great gaps in the wild boy’s story –his life as a young man —might be made into fiction. The story ends with the words “TO BE CONTINUED….”