My husband is from Canada, so every other year we spend the holidays with his family in Ontario and usually take some of that time to sight-see with the children in Toronto. This year I asked Twitter for some good Independent bookstore recommendations and of those, we were able to visit “Mabel’s Fables” on Mt. Pleasant, a true gem of a bookstore specializing in children’s books. To give you a brief review, I’ll adapt my normal “picture book review” categories:
Title: Mable’s Fables
Address: 662 Mount Pleasant Road (https://www.mabelsfables.com/)
The “gist”: Mable’s Fables has been around since 1988 and has developed a lot of character in that time. The downstairs is mostly picture books (and a lot of games and book-related toys like how-to kits and puzzles) while the upstairs is devoted to chapter books, MG, YA and a cozy back room with couch, chairs and walls covered with autographs and doodles of author-illustrators who have visited. There’s a resident calico cat (named Mabel, of course!) bright decorations and extremely helpful staff.
My favorite part: I’ll admit, I buy from Amazon and big box bookstores, but I sure do love independent bookstores and support them whenever I can. It makes me sublimely happy that there is a bookstore just for the love of children’s books. I only wish it weren’t so far away!
My response as a reader: Being in a store like this is like being a kid in a candy store – we promised each of the boys they could pick out something new to bring home. Since neither is particularly good at picking out their own books, I helped them narrow it down, but unlike box stores where there are row on row of titles which can seem overwhelming, this place felt like they’d hand picked only the best.
My “take-away” as a writer: The walls covered with autographs of authors and illustrators was a dream come true for both a reader and writer– one of the staff helped us pick out signatures of Neil Gaiman, Jeff Kinney (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”), Tom Angleberger (“Origami Yoda”), as well as locals Debbie Ridpath Ohi (art at right) add Kevin Sylvester (whose first “Neil Flambé” book we picked up on this trip!) It’s my new dream to visit when I’m published and get my name on that wall!
I also picked up two picture books while visiting, both classically Canadian…
Title: The Cat Came Back
Author/illustrator: Cordell Barker
Publisher/Date: Firefly Books (In cooperation with the National Film Board of Canada) Sept. 1, 2017
The “gist”: As in the traditional folk song, Mr. Johnson has a cat and simply can’t get rid of it, though he goes to crazy lengths trying.
My favorite part: Barker’s madcap illustrations and the slow descent into madness of Mr. Johnson are a joy to see in the film short, and they carry into picture book form quite well.
My response as a reader: When my Canadian husband and I were first dating, we attended “First Night Toronto 2001” and caught a screening of many of the National Film Board of Canada’s best animated shorts including this one. I know a different version of the song, so this one took a while to get in my head, but it’s now a favorite and I love that there’s a book version now! By the way, if you haven’t seen the video short, you’re welcome. (Opens in a new tab).
My “take-away” as a writer: If I’d been given the task of turning this classic short into a picture book, I probably would have leaned heavily on the rhyming song text and written it in rhyme, particularly with the recurring refrain (kids love repetition, dont-cha-know!). Barker didn’t and it works so much better. By simply narrating the action, he is able to make the illustrations tell the story, and also highlight little aspects that might otherwise have been lost in a rhyming text which can sometimes get too “cutesy.”
Title: The Cremation of Sam McGee
Author: Robert W. Service
Illustrator: Ted Harrison
Publisher/Date: Kids Can Press, March 1, 2013
The “gist”: Sam McGee from Tennessee goes to the Yukon to search for gold and just can’t seem to get warm, so he makes his friend promise to cremate him when he dies. I know, it doesn’t sound fun, but it is.
My favorite part: If you’re not familiar with the story, I won’t spoil it, but I will say the illustration of a smiling Sam in his red long underwear is pretty great.
My response as a reader: I first read this in elementary school sometime, probably about fifth grade. It was creepy then, and it still is, but it’s a great classic, and as a writer of poetry as well as kids books, I am glad to be reintroduced to this text, especially in picture book form — I look forward to the chance to read this one aloud!
My “take-away” as a writer: Robert W. Service spent time in the Yukon (he’s been called “Canada’s Kipling”), so he knew what he was writing about. I don’t necessarily believe you have to write only about “what you know,” but it sure needs to SOUND authentic, and lines like having the huskies howl “their woes to the homeless snows” sure do. The text is a little old-fashioned and probably wouldn’t get published today, but the fact that this is published as a book FOR CHILDREN despite including a frozen corpse shows that there’s room on the shelf for just about anything in children’s literature.