Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy is a kind of melancholic mashup of Night At The Museum and Hans Christian Anderson’s nineteenth century tale, The Snow Queen. A city museum is about to stage an exhibition of swords, but the museum is actually an alternative reality in disguise, a prison where a Snow Queen of centuries ago has imprisoned a boy who might have the power to end her reign. A curious young girl discovers the boy. She has to find a way to release him and help him in his quest.
I actually came across this book on a list of “STEM” titles, that is books which might help young readers in understanding and appreciating science and technology. If that’s what you’re looking for, then Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy is a conundrum. In many ways, it presents the usual misleading idea that science is all about limited pigeonholing, which prevents an appreciation of a wider, more magical reality. The story is similar to The Snow Queen in that sense. One of the main points Anderson makes is that modern rationality is apparently no match for Christianity.
However, The Snow Queen is a subtle tale, which in its criticism of rationality, also reveals how people can be misled by their imagination. The boy and girl in Anderson’s tale first come across the Snow Queen in a story which they mistakenly believe is real. The Snow Queen is herself a product of of viewing the world in an imaginative rather than rational way.
Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy has this same two-sided quality. Ophelia in her restless wandering around the museum discovers the Marvellous Boy, locked away by the Snow Queen. Ophelia finds him only because she is more curious and willing to look than other people. This is part of her nature as a budding young scientist. Another important aspect of science is the discipline needed to put aside preconceptions and prejudices and see what’s in front of you. Now here’s the tricky thing: Ophelia has to put aside her preconceptions, which in this case requires her to accept that there is a magical world hidden in a museum. To do this she must be a proper scientist, accepting what she sees, even if it doesn’t coincide with what she thinks she should be seeing. When Darwin devised his theory of evolution, the preconceptions of his time demanded that species were fixed and unchanging. Darwin had to accept the evidence of his eyes that species changed all the time. He had to set aside his old conception of reality and accept a new one, crazy as it seemed to be. Ophelia has to do exactly the same thing.
My initial feeling was that the portrayal of science in Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy was unnecessarily negative. But once I started to think about it, I wasn’t so sure. Why make the little girl into a scientist if you were just going to portray science in a negative light? In the end I came to the conclusion that author Karen Foxlee explores the contradictions of The Snow Queen in a modern setting. She has written a clever book which seems to be critical of modern science while also celebrating it. By a roundabout route, the nostalgic resurrection of a fairy story becomes a demonstration of that admirable discipline needed by brave scientists, who put aside what they are supposed to see, and see what is actually there.