Once Upon a Time at the Reference Library: The art of fairy tales

Like so many kids, my earliest exposure to visual art was in the pages of children’s books.

Jean de Brunhoff’s illustrations to accompany the Babar series pulled me into the elephant’s adventures. Even if there were scenes of imminent danger, something about the softness of the watercolour and pencil drawings was reassuring that everything would turn out fine in the end. And it did, of course, which is how de Brunhoff’s son Laurent was able to pick up the series and continue adding instalments to this day.

From simple line drawings to the most elaborately detailed scenes, art in kids’ books is a key part of building literacy. Illustrators convey ideas and emotions from the text in pictures so children can process them.

It’s also an introduction to art appreciation, as close as the library or bedroom bookshelf. Many illustrators are such talented artists that their works could be hung in a gallery.

Which is exactly what’s been done at the Toronto Reference Library in the show Once Upon a Time.  Located on the first floor in the TD Gallery, it’s an exhibit of fairy tale books and illustrations, taken from the Osborne Collection of Early Childhood Books

It’s a pleasingly small exhibit. If you’ve got a toddler with you, it’s easy to explore in a mere 20 minutes, with puzzles and questions to entertain kids at their eye level.

At the same time, it is a thoughtful retrospective on the evolution of fairy tales from oral tradition to picture books for adults to linger on.

I was amazed to learn Beauty and the Beast is based on a second-century story Roman story. And way back in the 17th century, Charles Perrault, grandfather of modern fairy tales, gathered stories from neighbours and wrote them down in a volume of Top 10 all-time hits, including Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Puss in Boots and Little Red Riding Hood.

You’d think the endings to such classics would be set in stone, but they vary depending on time and place. Perrault’s Red Riding Hood got eaten by the wolf. The End. The Brothers Grimm had a huntsmen help her out, and in a similar story from China, Grandmother Tiger, the little girl is her own heroine.

Just as the stories are fluid and varied, so is the artistic interpretation, a mirror of changing time and cultural influences, and the unique talents of illustrators themselves.

Once Upon A Time: Fairy tales from the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books is on now at the TD Gallery in the Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge. St. from now through Jan. 15.

Chihuly: Shivers of Joy

I don’t know about you, but I get excited in stationery stores. There’s a thrill I get seeing shelf after shelf of paper and pens and Post-It notes. It’s not the same ordering HP ink online, although I do that a lot.

It’s that sense of anticipation. Every shiny pen, every ream of paper represents potential – a way to transfer your inner world to the outer world. Gives me the shivers.

It’s not a stationery store, but the Chihuly exhibit at the ROM gave me the same shivers (both times I went) from the first space through to the last. Dale Chihuly’s inner world has been transformed into the outer world through the medium of glass.


I know I’m not alone in the shivers thing. I heard kids and parents trying to pick their “favourite.” It’s a tough choice: dazzling colours compete for eye-time, but for me, the forms are the most enthralling.

Chihuly is acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest glass sculptors, and part of the thrill of seeing his work in person is getting that tactile sense of volume. You don’t just see his work. You feel it, even if it’s cordoned off.


Glass is a remarkable material – somewhere between a liquid and a solid – and this exhibit plays to both states. You’re immersed in a watery world, with direct references to boats, and undersea creatures, and other fluid shapes. You can even lie down on comfy sandbags in one space and look up at a sea of colourful jellyfish-like shapes.

Then there are rock-hard chunky pieces that could be crystals chipped from a subterranean cavern. Pieces inspired by the Northwest Coast Indian baskets.

There’s even a star-like form that looks like the one that rose over the tree in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas when all the Whos came out to sing. Glass: It’s a shapeshifter.

Star in Chihuly exhibit

To create such varied forms takes a master – in fact it takes a whole team of master craftsmen and craftswomen, which is what Chihuly has in Seattle. He’s built that team up over the years, many recruited from the Pilchuck School he founded in 1971 with like-minded friends.

It’s still going strong. (You can learn more in the Emmy-award-winning doc Pilchuck: A Dance with Fire, which I caught on PBS after I saw the exhibit.)

I’m telling everyone I know who hasn’t seen the exhibit yet to go, before it ends in January 2017. I promise volts of colour and light and forms with a presence so palpable it just could give you shivers.