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In a bid to appeal to older, sassier girls, Disney is bringing out a rival to its own highly profitable line in princess spin-off merchandise. The glittering crowns worn so long by Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are soon to be knocked askew by a squadron of cheeky fairies.

The Fairies are based around the central character of JM Barrie’s Tinkerbell from Peter Pan and will have a less passive outlook. Instead of sitting in front of the mirror waiting for a happy ending, the fairies will be out causing mischief. Disney’s inspiration was apparently the famous line in Barrie’s story where Peter tells Wendy: ‘When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.’

It might all sound rather whimsical, but fairies are big business. The six gossamer-winged creatures, developed by a team of writers and merchandising specialists, will be the next in a succession of fairy-related dolls and books for young girls. Barbie already has the Fairytopia line, while Winx dolls, together with Scholastic’s series of fairy-themed storybooks by Daisy Meadows, are also huge commercial hits. Disney’s original princess franchise, launched in 2000, is already the fastest-growing Disney brand. In 2006 it made more than £1.5bn in worldwide retail sales. Signs that the Fairies will repeat this performance are already there. A trial website launch of the brand has resulted in more than a quarter of a million children logging on to ‘create their own fairy’ in just a month.

Happily, Disney is not the only organisation that will benefit from the Fairies. London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital will also gain. The children’s hospital holds the rights to earnings from Barrie’s Peter Pan story in perpetuity, according to the terms of the author’s will. Disney has confirmed it has made a one-off goodwill donation to the charity and will continue to make payments as the image of Tinkerbell is re-packaged for a new audience. The entertainment giant already pays out royalties to GOSH for merchandise relating to their classic 1953 animated film of the book, cleverly reissued in a new print this spring as a warm-up for the launch of the fairy products.

I have to admit, I envy my son’s world a little at the moment, since it is very well-populated with friends, real and otherwise.

The imaginary friends spring mostly from the pages of the children’s literature we’ve been reading lately: Ramona, from the Beverly Cleary books; Peter Pan and Tinkerbell; the Bobbsey Twins.

And then there’s Joey, the kangaroo — he came from my son’s own head, as far as I know. It’s weird, too, because my younger brother had the same imaginary kangaroo friend. Is Joey genetic?

Anyway, they’re a fun bunch, always up for whatever 4-year-olds enjoy. They are the passengers in his Hot Wheels cars, the audience for his made-up songs, the diners in his pretend restaurant. They also all own jet packs. Even Tinkerbell has a tiny one, for when her wings get tired.

This cast of characters lives not in Neverland or Oregon (did you remember that Ramona lived in Oregon?) but here in Salisbury, in a place called Wednesday Court. And this where the friends get awkward, because my son insists we have to drive there.

“We were supposed to go to Wednesday Court,” he says in an accusing tone when we return home from an outing. I have agreed to go there, but since there is no “there,” I’m not sure exactly what to do about it. He gets frustrated when I say I don’t know how to get there, because he knows right where it is. It’s on an obscure road off South Park Drive, a pretty nice neighborhood.

I understand his outrage at the blurry line between real and imaginary. In fact, a lot of my real friends are sort of straddling that line.

They’re scattered across the country, and sure, we talk by phone or e-mail, and I value them immensely, but some of them I haven’t seen in person for years — and for those friends who are strictly by e-mail or Facebook, I hear their voices in my head as surely as my son hears Peter Pan’s. I have some friends on the Delmarva.MomsLikeMe.com site whom I’ve never even met in person, even though their advice is perfect and their stories funny and relatable.

I feel like I know them so well, but they might as well live in Wednesday Court. Unlike Ramona or Tink, though, I can actually meet these women for coffee at some point.

The good news is that imaginary friends are SuperNanny-approved. According to my favorite child-rearing guru’s Web site, imaginary friends are in the best interest of children’s healthy development. It gives them the chance to take control, build their confidence, be creative, voice concerns, try out social and verbal skills and cope with loss (of a person, or of being the center of attention in the case of kids with new baby brothers or sisters).

And ever the pragmatist, Jo-Jo (that’s what I call my good friend SuperNanny when she and I have our child-development discussions in my head) says that parents can use imaginary friends to their advantage — not by trying to change them, because you could ruin it for the kid, but in ways such as “Why don’t you have a race with Tinkerbell to see who can get dressed first?” She really did use Tinkerbell as an example — how did she know?