Wee Folk Tales at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books

November 16, 2022 | Myrna

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In folklore, "wee folk" have many names and forms. These fictional characters range from tricksters to helpful companions. But, these secretive and magical creatures can be difficult to spot!

Peek under the toadstool at our new exhibit, Wee Folk: Fairies, Elves, Trolls and More. The exhibit runs until January 14, 2023 at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books (located on the 4th floor of Lillian H. Smith Branch). This companion post gives a sneak peek — or a quick recap if you missed it — of some of the books displayed in the exhibit.

Fairies and elves sitting around a table
Illustration from Fairy Tales (1932) by Hans Andersen, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

A Midsummer-Night's Dream

Cover of A Midsummer-Night's Dream illustrated by Arthur Rackham

A Midsummer-Night's Dream (1908 edition) written by William Shakespeare and illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

Shakespeare's A Midsummer-Night's Dream features a full fairy court, consisting of Queen Mab, King Oberon and their many courtiers. The mischievous Puck might be the play's most famous fairy. Puck, sometimes called Robin Goodfellow, was a popular figure in English folklore. Many stories of Puck's hijinks and pranks circulated in 16th- and 17th-century England. 

Puck sitting on a tree root talking to a fairy
Illustration of Puck (left) speaking to a fairy in A Midsummer-Night's Dream (1908 edition).

The Fairy Family: A Series of Ballads & Metrical Tales Illustrating the Fairy Mythology of Europe 

Ballads and Metrical Tales of the Fairy Faith of Europe

The Fairy Family: A Series of Ballads & Metrical Tales Illustrating the Fairy Mythology of Europe (1857) written by Archibald Maclaren and illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones.

In Victorian England, there was a lot of interest in fairy lore. In The Fairy Family, fencing instructor and fairy enthusiast Archibald Maclaren relays stories from across Europe, telling of trolls, dwarves, pixies, elves and more. It was the first published work by illustrator Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones would go on to become a famous painter in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. 

A Wonder Web of Stories

Book Cover of A Wonder Web

A Wonder Web of Stories (1892) written by Margaret Ridley Charlton and Caroline Augusta Frazer.

A Wonder Web of Stories was the first anthology of fairy stories published in Canada. In the story “Captain Pepper, The Valiant Knight of the Laurentians,” a wee folk adventure serves as a lesson in Canadian history and geography. Young Fred is whisked away by garden elves and fairies who take him on a tour across Canada. When the adventure ends, social studies lessons seem a bit more magical than before. 

A boy stands in the woods surrounded by elves
Fred encounters wee folk in A Wonder Web of Stories (1892).

Sir Thomas Thumb, or, The Wonderful Adventures of a Fairy Knight

Cover of Sir Thomas Thumb

Sir Thomas Thumb, or, The Wonderful Adventures of a Fairy Knight (1908) illustrated by H. Granville Fell.

Stories of a child no bigger than a thumb appear in many cultures. The name “Tom Thumb” in English describes characters from at least three different folk tales, with many minor variations. Sir Thomas Thumb draws on the British version of the Tom Thumb folktale. A peasant couple helps Merlin the Magician, who offers to help them in return. Their request: a child, “even if it is no larger than my thumb.” Merlin consults with Queen Mab, ruler of the Fairy Kingdom. They decide to grant the cottagers’ request in the most literal way possible. 

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White and the seven dwarfs

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) translated and illustrated by Wanda Gág.

Following the release of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore called for more accurate adaptations of the classic fairy tale. Illustrator and translator Wanda Gág answered that call. Born in a German community in Minnesota and fluent in German, Gág created a new translation of Snow White accompanied by her own inventive illustrations. As part of the Wee Folk exhibit, original art from Gág's Snow White is on display.


Book cover of Gnomes

Gnomes (1977) written Wil Huygen and illustrated by Rien Poortvliet.

Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet's Gnomes is a mock-scientific study of gnomes in their natural habitat. Beyond cute faux-anthropological details, Gnomes has an environmental message. We learn that gnomes try to live in harmony with their surroundings and fellow forest creatures. Gnomes offer aid to any animal in distress and use the natural energy from the wind to power their tools. Originally published in Dutch, Gnomes was a massive commercial and critical success when released in English. 

The Gift of the Little People

Cover of The Gift of the Little People by William Dumas

The Gift of the Little People (2022) written by William Dumas (Rocky Cree) and illustrated by Rhian Brynjolson

Storyteller William Dumas tells an Asiniskaw Īthiniwak (Rocky Cree people) story first told to him by his father. It involves Little People “no taller than your knee.” Following trade with Europeans, many members of medicine person Kākakiw’s band become deathly sick. Kākakiw begins to despair until a visit to the Little People’s world introduces him to a new medicine.

Giju's Gift

Book cover of Giju's Gift by Brandon Mitchell

Giju's Gift (2022) written by Brandon Mitchell (Mi'kmaq) and illustrated by Veronika Barinova

In Mi'kmaq stories, pugulatmu’j (Little People) help maintain balance with the land, but they are also known for their mischievous tricks. In Giju's Gift, Mi'kmaw girl Mali’s treasured hair clip is stolen by a pugulatmu’j, Puug. But, when Mali confronts Puug she discovers the pugulatmu’j is on an important mission.

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Post adapted from Wee Folk: Fairies, Elves, Trolls and More (2022), curated by Wendy Banks, Roberta Duarte, Maya Fang and Myrna Scully-Ashton.