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.