The wonderful thing about fantasy, says author Gail Carson Levine, is that "it frees us. It opens up every possibility." At the same time, however, "it gives us a sense of the shape of a story. You can't imagine if there is nothing to go by, but using imagination within a certain context can help you shape ideas, gives you plenty of room to make up stuff."
For almost a decade, Levine has been exploring that exciting realm of fantasy and fairy tale. Her first book, "Ella Enchanted," a Cinderella story that tells how a supposed blessing could really be a curse, won a Newberry Honor Medal and has been turned into a movie.
She followed that with several stories that took traditional fairy tales and turned them upside down or inside out, spoofing the notion that fairies are always right but still proclaiming the importance of true love. She has made up her own fairy tales, as in "The Two Princesses of Bamarre," which also takes unusual twists and turns; and she has written contemporary novels for children, as well.
Her most recent book visits the fairies of Peter Pan's Neverland — not just Tinkerbell, but a whole community of fairies around her. "Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg" explores themes of generosity, selflessness and self-discovery.
The Disney folks came to her and suggested the story, Levine said in a telephone interview from her 200-year-old farmhouse in New York's Hudson River Valley.
"Barrie's 'Peter Pan' was my favorite book as a kid. I loved Peter, and I wanted to be Wendy. And I also saw Mary Martin perform the stage role on Broadway, so the opportunity to go there was really appealing."
It took Levine a while to find her talent as a writer. "In elementary school I was a charter member of the Scribble Scrabble Club, and in high school my poems were published in an anthology of student poetry," she said. "But I didn't want to be a writer."
First, she wanted to be an actress, and then an artist. Her painting was what connected her to writing. She took a class in writing and illustrating children's books, "and I found out I was much more interested in the writing than the illustrating."
She discovered an interesting thing; she was much more self-critical when she was painting than when she was writing. "I liked what I wrote, so it is a much happier process."
But for nine years everything she wrote was rejected.
So, if her stories tend to talk about persistence and self-discovery, there are good reasons.
"I think kids tend to be very self-critical. And that's one reason they like fairy tales. They can step into the story and shrug off all their worries and feelings. The rules that apply there are not the ones that apply here."
If you stop to think about it, she said, "some fairy tales are extremely goofy. Take 'The Princess and the Pea.' Why would a person who could feel a pea in her bed have the qualities that would make her a kind and good leader?"
And if everyone were perfect, you would not have much of a story. But they are stories to have fun with. "And the reason I'm in it is for fun. I think back to my own childhood, and I loved acting out the stories. I loved to be the princess, and I always made my friend be the evil queen."
Levine also has a picture book coming out soon, a takeoff on the boy-who-cried-wolf. "That story is really about abandonment by the community." In her book, "Betsy Who Cried Wolf," "I reverse the story. The wolf becomes the good guy at the end. Something Betsy fears turns into something beloved."
Levine is also at work on a second story based on the Disney fairies, this one dealing with a species she terms the "Greater-Wanded Fairies."
And from there, who knows? There are Lesser-Wanded Fairies, all kinds of winged fairies, endless variations.
That's the wonderful thing about imagination and fantasy, she said.
And that's why it's important for kids to learn to imagine. "The mind is a muscle that grows like any other. The more it is stretched, the more it will grow."
Fairy tales should not be taken too seriously, she said. Yet, they do convey important messages and values. Fairy tales are often the first stories that teach children the importance of kindness and of the need to help others. There is usually an element of good versus evil.
"There is a Cinderella story in every culture. Fundamentally, it's about not being appreciated. And if there's a happy-ever-after ending, I say, yeah! The world provides enough that is not happy that I think it is wonderful to find it in books."
Fairy tales are "a lot about love," she said. "They hit us in tender places. That's why they've stuck around for so long."