Category Archives: Mel Rhodes Gray

Sarah Ellis: Current Writer In Residence at The Osborne Collection

Sarah Ellis at the Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library. (February 11th, 2012)

Sarah Ellis is currently the writer-in-residence at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Literature. She will be working at the Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library until May 31st.

Ellis is here from British Columbia, but she first worked as a professional librarian in Toronto, in 1975. She was here for a very short time, but during that time she made lasting friendships, and remembers meeting Lillian H. Smith, the founder of the Boys and Girls House in Toronto. For a librarian, she said, it was like meeting the Queen Mother.

Thirty-seven years later, she admits that some of her beliefs about libraries and children have “taken a beating,” but one thing that has stuck with her is the belief in the value of the imaginative life of children, expressed through reading and writing. The two readings she chose to present at the launch of the program, this past Saturday, reflected her commitment to that value, and her ability to carry that imaginative life into adulthood.

Part of Ellis’s imaginative life as a child involved making paper dolls from images in the Sears catalogue. She explained how that experience, combined with a conversation she had with her travel agent years later, led to her writing the first piece she read aloud. It was a short story titled “The Fall and Rise of the Cut-Out Family,” available in When I went to the Library: Writers Celebrate Books and Reading.

She described her second reading as a bit “cheekier and weirder” than the first. It was an unpublished piece called, “If it’s a Story,” a stream-of-consciousness-like essay, following the thoughts of a writer as she forms the idea for a story. It also showed how Ellis’s non-fictional life informs her work. She does some ESL tutoring in Vancouver, which helps her stay in touch with her audience—mostly eleven-year-old girls—and the second piece she read began by introducing two girls: Mildred (a recent immigrant from China) and her friend, Dogsmirt.

The questions Ellis was asked, following the reading, are probably familiar ones: questions about where ideas come from and the writing process.They are questions I have become afraid to ask authors, though I’m always curious about their answers. Ellis’s storytelling abilities were clear in her answers, as was her good-nature. I have been to readings where those questions received eye-rolling and snarky comments from the author. Instead, Ellis included anecdotes and descriptive examples to make her responses unique and interesting.

For example, when asked whether or not she was the type of writer who reads a lot, or one who thinks reading impinges on a writer’s creativity, the answer was one you might expect from an author/librarian: she reads a variety of books and is often reading more than one book at the same time. However, she included an anecdote about a common experience readers have when they are reading two very different kinds of books at the same time, and then pick up one, mistaking it for the other. She compared it to sitting down at a dinner table with a glass of milk and a glass of wine. If you are expecting milk and drink from a glass of wine by mistake, it’s disgusting, and vice versa, even if you like them both. She took a familiar question, with a predictable answer, and added a common experience… and totally grossed me out. It was surprising and wonderful.

Ellis will be hosting several workshops while she is in Toronto and she will deliver the 9th Albert Lahmer Memorial Lecture. I received the following information about the workshops and the lecture in an e-mail from The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Literature.  The information can also be found on their website.


Build Your Own World Saturday February 18, 2-4 p.m.

A workshop for young writers ages 9-13.

A Picture Book Celebration for Writers and Writer/IllustratorsTuesday March 6, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Sarah Ellis and Barbara Reid host a picture book appreciation evening. Please bring a picture book that you admire for its craft and be prepared to share your enthusiasm. What can we learn from the masters? In the course of the evening we will look at some Osborne treasures.

Writing and Telling Monday May 7, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Join Sarah and members of Toronto’s storytelling community for an interactive discussion of stories in the air and stories on the page/screen.

 Everything I Know About Writing for Young ReadersFriday May 25, 1-4 p.m.

In this adult workshop for aspiring writers, Sarah will take a once-over-lightly approach to the pleasures and pitfalls of writing for and about children and young adults. Bring questions, and come prepared to play.

 Albert Lahmer Memorial Lecture:

Sowing Seeds in Danny, Dorothy, Dennis, Dillon and Destiny:  A Century of Library Service to ChildrenThursday, April 26, 2012, 8 p.m.

When we think of female social activists of the early twentieth century we think of women like Nellie McClung.  Politician, organizer, dynamic speaker, writer (children’s novel Sowing Seeds in Danny, 1908), McClung was in the vanguard of a huge shift in public consciousness.  Less often do we think of the quieter, and in some ways more subversive, revolution that was taking place in public libraries.  As we celebrate the centenary of service to children at the Toronto Public Library and look back to the early decades of library service to children let’s examine some of the specific books and stories that lay behind that mission. What were those seeds that Lillian H. Smith and her disciples were sowing with such energy, idealism and creativity?  And how did they get away with it?

All events take place in the Community Room at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. If you would like to register for any of the following workshops you can call Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books at  416-393-7753. Registration is not required for the Albert Memorial Lecture.


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Nursery Rhymes

Nursery Rhymes and Fables by Louey Chisholm (1920)

As my niece Ainsley grows up, my mom keeps bringing out all kinds of books and toys that my brother and I played with as kids. They are often things that I had completely forgotten about but instantly remember once I see them again.  On a recent visit, we read a nursery rhyme book that was a favourite of mine when I was three or four years old. I wasn’t sure I could remember any of the rhymes when I first saw it, but I did know exactly what the picture of the cow jumping over the moon was going to look like when I opened it.

In the introduction to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie write: “An oft-doubted fact attested by the study of nursery rhymes is the vitality of oral tradition. This vitality is particularly noticeable where children are concerned…as V. Sackville-West has put it, children say ‘tell it again, tell it just the same’, and will tenaciously correct the teller who varies in the slightest particular from the original recital.”[i]

That must have been the case with my book of nursery rhymes. If you asked me how many rhymes I knew before I looked at the book again, I would have said I couldn’t remember many of them. Yet, once I read the first line of most of them, the rest of the rhyme came back to me. At The Osborne Collection I found many of my same old favourites and many more that were new to me.

From Nursery Rhymes and Fables by Louey Chisholm (1920)

Humpty Dumpty is one of the oldest and most familiar nursery rhymes today. The entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes says students of linguistics believe that its age “is to be measured in thousands of years, or rather it is so great that it cannot be measured at all”.[ii] It was once a riddle, but it has been linked the picture of an egg so often that most people know the why the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Other familiar rhymes are associated with games. I remember playing “Keep the Castle” as a kid. One person would stand on something high—when I played it was often the top of a slide—while the others attempt to push or pull them down. When someone succeeded, they would occupy the place at the top and yell: I’m the king of the castle, get down you dirty rascals! There is a Scottish version of the game, called “Haud the Bowerique,” but the rhyme was slightly different:

I William of the Wastle

Am now in my Castle,

And awe the Dogs in the Town

Shan’t gar me gang down.[iii]

From Nursery Rhymes and Fables, by Louey Chisholm (1920).

I also remember playing the “Patty Cake” clapping game with my grandma when I was very young. It was not in my nursery rhyme book but it was in one of the books at The Osborne Collection. It was book it was written:

Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man,

Bake me a cake as fast as you can;

Pat it and prick it, and mark it with B,

Put it in the oven for Baby and me.

Now that I have been reminded of it, I’m looking forward to teaching it to my niece. Of course, the cake will be marked with an A for Ainsley though. I’m also likely to say “patty cake,” even though “pat-a-cake” makes so much more sense now that I have seen it.

From Nursery Rhymes, by Claud Lovat Fraser (1919).

This one was also one of my favourites when I was younger and I liked this photo, by Claud Lovat Fraser. But as I mentioned above, many of the nursery rhymes at The Osborne Collection were new to me. For example:

From Rhymes for the Nursery, by Jane Taylor (1854).

Why here’s a foolish little man,

Laugh at him, donkey if you can;

A cat, and dog, and cow, and calf

Come every one of you and laugh.

For only think, he runs away

If honest donkey does by bray!

And when the bull begins to bellow,

He’s like a crazy little fellow.[iv]

Most of the rhymes that were unfamiliar to me were in an older volume by Jane Taylor, published in 1854. There are many volumes to choose from though and at least one book of nursery rhymes with illustrations by Arthur Rackham.

If you are interested in looking at some of the nursery rhyme books and would like to take some sort of reference books with you, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, by Iona and Peter Opie is really helpful. The Annotated Mother Goose: Nursery rhymes old and new, arranged and explained by William S. and Cecil Barring-Gould is also very good. It list rhymes chronologically, approximate date of first appearance in print, starting with Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book  (c. 1744). Also, there is a book by Katherine Elwes Thomas that attempts to fit the rhymes into an historical framework called, The Real Personages of Mother Goose (1930). When I was looking for information about the rhymes I used in this post I also came across an interesting book by Felix Dennis, called When Jack Sued Jill – Nursery Rhymes for Modern Times (2006). He has a couple of illustrated examples on his website.

All photos were taken at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library:

1. Taylor, Jane. Rhymes for the Nursery. London: Arthur Hall, Virtue, & Co., 1854.

2. Fraser, Claud Lovat. Nursery Rhymes. London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1919.

3. Chisholm, Louey. Nursery Rhymes and Fables. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1920.

[i] Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: The Clarendon Press), page 8.

[ii] Henry Bett, quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, page 215.

[iii] Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: The Clarendon Press), page 254.

[iv] Jane Taylor, Rhymes for the Nursery. (London: Arthur Hall, Virtue, & Co., 1854), page 84

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

A Copy of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" from The Osborne Collection

When I first met my father-in-law (and fellow blogger) Owen Gray, I was a little intimidated. He is a well-educated, well-mannered, and well-spoken man with a deep “radio voice” and a very firm handshake. If he had been any taller I am afraid I might have run away. However, he quickly put me at ease by reciting the introduction to one of his favourite books.  In an excellent 19th Century, rural-Mississippi accent he performed the first few sentences of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.  I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary.[i] 

Over the holidays I had the opportunity to ask family and friends what their favourite books were when they were children. I assumed that Owen would say that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was one of his but I decided to ask him anyway and to my surprise, he told me he didn’t like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at all when he was young.

When he was twelve he read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and liked it so much that he sought out The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the subtitle of which is Tom Sawyer’s Comrad) didn’t finish reading it. As an adult, however, he had to read it for an American Literature course in university and he liked it so much he found himself laughing out loud.

He asserts, for several reasons—I won’t get into in detail here—that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a book for children and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a book for adults. Briefly though, he did compare Tom Sawyer to Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery: Tom and Anne are both bright, adventurous, and at times, mischievous. Ultimately, though, they are good-at-heart and destined to become a pillar of their society. Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, is a less romantic figure and his story is less nostalgic than Tom Sawyer’s.

It is hard to say exactly what makes a story for children, as opposed to one that was written for adults; I imagine because the definition of a children’s story changes as society and our understanding of childhood changes. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was written more than a century ago, about a boy who grows up in Missouri, in the 1840s. In this case, however, Twain wrote in the preface:

Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.[ii]

I don’t think I had ever actually read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer before deciding to post about Owen’s favourite childhood story. So, when I visited The Osborne Collection, I chose two beautifully illustrated editions to share here. For those of you who haven’t read it, or would simply like a reminder, I’ve included illustrations with a summary below. You can find the original illustrations by True W. Williams (the ones Mark Twain approved when the book was first published) online here. If you would like to read the story yourself, the text is available online and there is a free audio recording at Librivox.

The Adventure of Tom Saywer consists of 35 short chapters that are more like a series of linked vignettes. For example, the second chapter, “The Glorious Whitewasher” describes the famous scene in which Tom, fools other boys in to believing that whitewashing a fence is so much fun that they trade their valuables for the privilege to do the work for him.

Inside Cover of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Illustrated by Donald McKay (1946)

What he thought would be a day of drudgery turns into a stellar day for Tom. He comes away from his ‘punishment’ with several small treasures from the other boys and plenty of time left to spend with his friends; he is rewarded by his aunt Polly for finishing the task without complaint; he wins the imaginary battle he plays with his friends that day and he is immediately smitten when he sets eyes on Becky Thatcher for the first time.

Tom meets Huck on his way to school. Illustrated by Richard Rogers (1933)

On his way to school on Monday, Tom runs into Huck. Many of the boys, including Tom, envy  Huck because he has the freedom to do as he pleases all day. Huck’s father is an alcoholic and pays little attention to whether his son attends school. Huck is carrying a dead cat that he plans to use to get rid of warts. He tells Tom that taking a dead cat to the cemetery after someone wicked has been buried invokes devils that will take away the warts. The two boys agree to meet in the cemetery that night. The same night, Injun Joe and Muff Potter are also at the cemetery with Dr. Robinson to rob a grave. Tom and Huck are silent witnesses as Injun Joe kills the doctor in an act of revenge for having insulted him five years earlier. Muff Potter is knocked out in the scuffle and set up by Injun Joe to take the blame for the murder.

Injun Joe standing over the body of Dr. Robinson & The letter penned by Huck and signed in blood. Illustrated by Donald McKay (1946)

The two boys swear to each other that they will keep silent about the murder, out of fear of Injun Joe. Both boys have a guilty conscience and they bring Muff food and gifts in jail but they stay silent as the trial gets closer and carry on making mischief. For example, they decide to live the life of pirates on the river with their friend Joe Harper and when Tom learns the town thinks they’ve drowned, the three boys return to make a dramatic entrance at their own funeral.

Tom decides to testify at Muff Potter’s trial, without betraying Huck by revealing that he also witnessed the doctor’s murder. Injun Joe escapes out the courtroom window and Tom is terrified at first that he will return for revenge but enough time passes that it seems unlikely and Tom goes back to sneaking out at night to meet Huck.

One night, they meet to search for buried treasure in a haunted house and  Injun Joe enters with a stranger. The boys hide and watch as he attempts to stash stolen money in the house and finds thousands of dollars in gold, already buried there. The stranger is keen to get out of town with the treasure but Tom and Huck hear him vow to get revenge before he leaves and they assume he means revenge on Tom.

Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe, & Huckleberry Funn. Illustrated by Ricard Rogers (1933)

Huck begins to follow Injun Joe each night, hoping to discover where he has hidden the gold and he discovers that he plans to get revenge on the Widow Douglas for something her husband, the former judge in town did to punish him years ago. His partner is uncomfortable with the idea of killing a woman for her husband’s actions so Injun Joe says he will mar her looks by slitting her nostrils or clipping her ears and leave whether or not she bleeds to death to fate. Huck fetches a neighbour and his two sons, who rush to the widow’s house with guns in time to rescue her.

Illustration by Donald McKay (1946)

Becky & Tom lost in the cave. Illustrated by Donald McKay (1946).

Meanwhile, Tom and his classmates have gone on a picnic to McDougal’s cave. Tom and Becky get lost while exploring the cave and they are not missed until the next day. The townspeople are unable to find them and they begin to run out of food and candlelight. Tom lets Becky rest while he searches for an exit and discovers Injun Joe is using the cave as a hideout. Eventually, Tom comes across a slit of light in the cave walls and pushes his way out of the cave with Becky. They emerge near the river, five miles from the mouth of the cave and flag down some men in a boat, who return them to town.

A few days later, once Tom has had time to recover, Judge Thacker tells Tom that he has sealed the cave with an iron door to keep people from getting lost in there again. Tom tells him about Injun Joe, who is soon discovered laying dead inside the cave, with his knife snapped in two and scratches on the door where he has tried to claw his way out. He is buried near the mouth of the cave. On the day after his funeral, Tom and Huck return to hole where Tom and Becky escaped and find the treasure.

The widow learns that Huck saved her from Injun Joe and offers to adopt him. Huck has a hard time adjusting to all of the widow’s rules and runs away within three weeks. Tom finds him in an old barrel, dressed in his old clothes, eating scraps. He convinces him to return to the widow’s house in exchange for a place in his new robber gang. Tom returns with Huck and mediates a reconciliation between the two: the widow agrees to be a little less strict with Huck and Huck vows to make her proud of her decision to adopt him.

Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. Illustration by Donald McKay (1946).

All photos were taken at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library:

1. Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Gosset & Dunlap, 1946. Illustrations by: Donald McKay.

2. Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Three Sirens Press, 1933. Illustrations by: Richard Rogers.

[i] Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc, 2004), 3.

[ii] Twain, Adventures of Tom Sawyer (London, ON: CRW Publishing Limited, 2004), 9.


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Rational Recreations

One of the best things about The Osborne Collection is how accessible the collection’s rare books are to the general public. I recently studied the four volumes of Rational Recreations, by William Hooper. At 234 years old, they are in excellent condition. The book is out of copyright and it can be found online, but it is much more interesting to study the originals, especially in this case because the volumes at The Osborne Collection contain sixty-five engraved plates by John Lodge, and all but four of them are hand-coloured.

The full title is long and descriptive, which was typical for the time. Rational Recreations: in which the Principals of Numbers and Natural Philosophy are clearly and copiously elucidated, by a series of Easy, Entertaining, Interesting Experiments. Among which are All those commonly performed with the cards. Some of the experiments are fairly straightforward and in the process, they teach children (and adults) about mathematics and natural philosophy, as the title states.

I had some trouble finding information about Dr. William Hooper, but I did find that in 1755 he translated Nouvelles Recreations Physiques et Mathematiques, by Edme-Gilles Guyot. He credits Guyot for many of the figures and experiments included in Rational Recreations and he specifically acknowledges  Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615) and  Jacques Ozanam (1640-1718) for many of the ‘recreations’ included in the book.

Hooper says that although the work is, “in general, a compilation, some original experiments will be here found…The principal of each science are, moreover, here laid down in a few plain aphorisms, such as require no previous knowledge, and very little capacity or attention to comprehend…” (Vol. 1, i-ii). Although the experiments he includes are entertaining and interesting, I wouldn’t say that they are all easy, or safe. For this reason, I wouldn’t say it was specifically a book for children, as you will see below.

The Catapulta & The Sailing Chariot

Volume I: Page 200, Plate IX.

Figure One – The Catapulta. ABCD, the frame in which the arrows are placed; EF the spring by which they are forced out. G the post to which the rope that bonds the springs are fastened.

Figure Two – The sailing chariot; AB the body of the chariot; CD the sails; E the rudder, guided by the man at the helm A.

A Carriage To Go Without Any External Force

The footman is technically inside the carriage, so I suppose the name is accurate.

Volume I: Page 196, Plate VIII

Figure One – A carriage to go without any external force. ABCD, the figure of the carriage, with the person who rides in it, and the footman who drives it.

Figure Two – represents the machinery by which it is moved, and which is concealed in a box behind the carriage. CD are two treadles behind that are pushed down alternatively by the man behind the carriage, and by means of the ropes. CA, DA, turn the wheels HH, which being fixed on the frame axis with the great wheels II, turn them also.

A Carriage To Sail Against the Wind & The Univertable Carriage

Volume I: Page 206, Plate X

Figure One – A carriage to sail against the wind. ABCD the body of the carriage; M the mast; GEFH the sails; K the cog-wheel, that takes the teeth placed perpendicular to the sides of the fore-wheels; R the rudder by which it is guided.

Figure Two – The uninvertible carriage. AB the body of the carriage; C the weight by which it is always kept upright. FGDE are iron circles in which it moves; P the door; O the window, and QR the shafts.

The Magician’s Box

Volume III: Page 232, Plate XVIII

Figure One – The magicians box. AB is the base of the box in the top of which is a hole E, about the size of a card: in this base is placed the circle of OP, figure three, that has five cards painted on it; containing a magnet QR, and is movable on a pivot.

Figure Two – the body of the box, which consists of four inclined panes of glass; and in a hole at the top is fixed a convex lens. This box is placed on the magnetic table, by which either of the cards on the circle are brought under the hole.

Figure Four – The mystical dial: this dial is divided into ten equal parts and its centre is a touched needle, which is regulated by the magnetic table.

Figure Five – The box for the intelligent fly. At the centre of the box is a pivot, on which is placed a touched needle L, that has at one end of it an enameled fly: over this is placed the pasteboard circle ABCD, on which ten letters are written.

Volume One contains an inserted advertisement (between pages viii and iv) for the instruments and machines needed to perform some of the experiments in the book, sold by George Adams at the time of publishing. It says he is “the only person who makes them under the author’s inspection.” Unfortunately, you cannot find any such equipment at The Osborne Collection, but you can find the original instructions and coloured diagrams for making your own.

All photos were taken at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library:

1. Hooper, William. Rational Recreations: in which the Principals of Numbers and Natural Philosophy are clearly and copiously elucidated, by a series of Easy, Entertaining, Interesting Experiments. Among which are All those commonly performed with the cards.Vol. 1. London: L. Davis, Holborn; J. Robson, New Bond-Street; B. Law, Avemary-lane; and G. Robinson, Pater-noster-row, 1774.

2. Hooper William. Rational Recreations: in which the Principals of Numbers and Natural Philosophy are clearly and copiously elucidated, by a series of Easy, Entertaining, Interesting Experiments. Among which are All those commonly performed with the cards. By W. Hooper, M.D. Vol. 3. London: L. Davis, Holborn; J. Robson, New Bond-Street; B. Law, Avemary-lane; and G. Robinson, Pater-noster-row, 1774.

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The Magic Fishbone


Cover of edition printed in 1911, with illustrations by Susan Beatrice Pearse

The Magic Fishbone is the second of four stories, written in 1867, for a series called Holiday Romance. The series was published in the children’s magazines:  All the Year Round and Our Young FolksBoth magazines can be found in The Osborne Collection, along with the edition of the story that is shown here, which was published in 1911 and illustrated by Susan Beatrice Pearse.

I had planned to do a post about A Christmas Carol, also by Charles Dickens, because I have Christmas on my mind and the recent press surrounding the new Muppets movie reminded me of their movie/musical version of A Christmas Carol (1992). I was 11 years old when that movie came out and I loved it! It was several years before I read the original story but by that time it felt like an old friend. I knew The Osborne Collection would have several gorgeous editions that I could share on the blog and I was looking forward to seeing a few of them. When I arrived, Martha brought me the books I had asked for from their catalogue, but she also brought out a less well-known Dickens story that she thought I would like: The Magic Fishbone. I had never heard of it before and I thought there was a good chance it would be new to others who read this blog as well, so I’ve decided to share this story instead.

Each of the four stories are purportedly written  by a child during the holidays, which explains how playfully nonsensical this particular story is, as you will see.

The fictional author of  The Magic Fishbone is a seven-year-old girl named, Alice Rainbird.  She tells the story of King and Queen Watkins, who have nineteen children, aged seven months to seven years. The eldest, Princess Alicia helped care for her brothers and sisters, especially because her mother was often ill and her father works in an office all day.

The Watkins Children

The king is in a melancholy mood one morning because quarter day is a long way off  and many of his children are growing out of their clothes. Nevertheless, he stops at a Fishmongers to purchase half a pound of salmon on his way to work one day, to be sent home to his wife for their dinner that night. The errand-boy from the shop quickly catches up with and asks if he noticed the strange old woman in the shop while he was there. The king did not, but the old lady is following closely behind. She introduces herself as Good Fairy Grandmarina and has strict instructions for the king.  He must allow Princess Alicia to eat some of the salmon he has just purchased.

Grandmarina treats the king like a child when he protests and  insists that he does not ask questions, but “be good” and do as he is told. She tells him at the end of the meal Princess Alicia will leave a bone on the plate and he is to tell her to dry it, and polish it until it shines. The fishbone will grant her a wish—any wish—provided she ask for it at the right time.

The king does as he is told and relates the instructions from Grandmarina to Princess Alicia. Her mother, “the Royal Momma” promptly faints and falls ill. Princess Alicia finds her mother’s smelling salts and revives her. Princess Alicia is relied upon to nurse her mother and care for her siblings.


Several things happen, while her mother is ill, that makes Alicia think about using the magic fishbone. One of her young brothers is badly bitten by an ill-tempered pug dog next door, but she manages to stop the bleeding and piece together some old rags to make a proper bandage for him. When the cook runs away with the tall tipsy soldier, Princess Alicia steps in to do the cooking. But, while she is peeling turnips for their  soup, the baby of the family falls out of her lap and under a grate. His face is badly bruised and swollen and he will not stop crying, which upsets the rest of the children. But, Princess Alicia distracts them by having them pretend to be cooks, making caps out of old newspapers. She nurses the baby’s wounds and soothes him while supervising the rest of the children, who finish making dinner. Once they finish eating and cleaning up, she has them entertain the baby (and themselves) with “the dance of eighteen cooks.”

The King is perplexed by the fact that his daughter does not use the magic fishbone and asks her several times if she has lost it or forgotten about it. My favourite part of the story is Alicia’s friendship with the Duchess, her doll, who only Alicia knows is actually alive. I like it because Alicia’s imagination brings the doll further to life, each time she confides in the duchess. When the King looks at her crossly for not helping her mother with the fishbone, Alicia tells the duchess about it and the little doll nods and smiles. As time goes on and Alicia continues to confide in her, the duchess winks, laughs and tosses her hair, and eventually, carries on a conversation.

When the King sees his children dancing for the baby he sighs heavily and sits down miserably. Princess Alicia asks what is wrong and he confides in her about his financial problems. She asks if there is any way of getting more money, and when he assures her there is not, she explains why she has not used the fishbone in the past: “When we have done our very, very best, papa, and that is not enough, then I think the right time must have come for asking help of others.” Then, she takes out the fishbone, kisses it, and the King’s pay comes rattling down the chimney.

The wish is followed promptly by Grandmarina, who arrives in a carriage that is pulled by four peacocks. She is there to scold the king and ensure he has learned a lesson from his daughter. Once satisfied, she provides clothing for the children and heals their wounds before asking to be introduced to the duchess. They request the family’s presence at the church in half an hour. Together, Grandmarina, the duchess, and Princess Alicia search out Prince Certainpersonio. They find him “sitting by himself and waiting to be ninety.” Grandmarina tells him she has brought his bride and the duchess serves as bridesmaid at their wedding.

Thanks to Grandmarina, there will be eight quarter days each year from then on, except leap years, when there will be ten. Which is  a very good thing for Princess Alicia and Prince Certainpersonio; they are told they will have thirty-five children (eighteen girls and seventeen boys). All of their children will all be good and beautiful, with naturally curly hair. “They will never have the measles, and they will have recovered from the whooping-cough before being born.”

Grandmarina’s last order of business is to get rid of the fishbone. When she takes it from Princess Alicia, it magically flies down the throat of the pug dog next door, choking him to death.

It is a strange story, but I could easily imagine a seven year old girl telling it, especially the part about having eighteen girls and seventeen boys. It was surprising in parts and I enjoyed it. It won’t take the place of A Christmas Carol, in terms of a favourite holiday story, but I am glad Martha thought to share it with me.

All photos were taken at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library:

1. Dickens, Charles. The Magic Fishbone. London: The Saint Cathedral Press and James Nisbet & Co., 1911. Illustrations by Susan Beatrice Pearse.


Filed under Mel Rhodes Gray

The Princess and the Goblin

“I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” — George MacDonald,  “The Fantastic Imagination”

Illustrated by Jesse Willcox Smith (1920)

I first read  George MacDonald’s,  The Princess and the Goblin, for a Children’s Literature course at the University of Toronto. Although I first encountered it my late twenties, I really enjoyed reading it. Images of the tender-footed goblins in their subterranean caves and Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother spinning in her attic room have stayed with me, so it was one of the first books I looked for in The Osborne Collection’s catalogue. They have seventeen copies available to look at, published between 1872 to 1986, including a Hebrew translation: ha-Nesikhah yeha-shedonim, published in 1965. I looked at several copies, ranging in age and form, from an older boxed collector’s edition to a Puffin Classics paperback. I especially liked the cover of this one, from a copy printed in 1920 and illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. I asked Martha, who works at The Osborne Collection, if she has any favourite editions and she said that, although she has a soft spot for the copy she remembers from her childhood, now she especially likes the ones that include the original black and white illustrations by Arthur Hughes.

Illustrations by Arthur Hughes

Princess Irene is eight-years old when the story begins. She is sent away from her parents, to be raised in the country in a large home on the side of a mountain. She lives a sheltered life in which she is often kept indoors because, though nobody tells the princess, there are intelligent but devious goblins living in caves and tunnels underground. The goblins used to be men, but they were driven underground by some long-ago persecution and have become grotesque, squat beings with hard heads and soft, vulnerable feet. They have built and maintained their own subterranean kingdom in which they maintain an “ancestral grudge against those who occupied their former possessions and especially against the descendants of the king who caused their expulsion.”

On a rare occasion when Irene is left alone in her room, Irene takes the opportunity to explore the upper regions of the house, where she finds her “father’s mother’s father’s mother,” or her great-great-grandmother, whose guidance and supernatural powers help Irene through the course of the story.

Illustrations by: Maria L. Kirk, Arthur Hughes, and Charles Folkard

The beautiful great-great-grandmother cannot be seen by everyone and Princess Irene struggles to convince people that the old queen truly exists; she even begins to think that she may have dreamed the meeting. When she searches for her great-great-grandmother, she cannot be found. Nevertheless, when she is needed, the old queen is always available.

Princess Irene is also aided by a twelve-year-old miner named Curdie Peterson, who knows the goblin’s secret: they hate poetry. Curdie has a talent for making up rhymes on the spot that keep the goblins at a distance. One afternoon when the princess and her nurse, Lootie, are out for a walk, Lootie is spooked by mischief-making goblins into running about the mountainside until they have thoroughly lost their way. Curdie notices the excited goblins and begins to sing a song to scare them away, before escorting the princess and her nurse home.

Illustrations by: Arthur Hughes, Maria L. Kirk, and Jesse Wilcox Smith

Curdie is not afraid of the goblins because he knows their weaknesses. As a result, he is not afraid to work late in the mines. He hopes to earn some extra money so he can buy his mother a new petticoat, after noticing she has complained of the cold earlier than usual that year. When the goblins believe the miners to be gone home for the night, they congress in the goblin Palace Hall. Curdie cautiously follows a progression of goblins to their meeting and overhears the goblin king’s plans for “the deliverance of their people.” Curdie discovers that they have a contingency plan to flood the mines but he is unable to discover their main plan without risking discovery.

Curdie spends many nights attempting to discover what the goblins are planning. Eventually he is discovered, eavesdropping on the royal family. He does, however, learn of their plans to kidnap Princess Irene and force her to marry their crown prince, Harelip. The great-great-grandmother spins spiderwebs, brought to her from across the sea by her pigeons, into fine thread that she gives Irene. When Curdie is caught spying on the goblins, that thread guides Irene to Curdie and they follow it  safely out of the maze of underground caves.

Illustrations by: Jessie Willcox Smith (1 & 2) and Maria L. Kirk

As you can see, there are several plot-points that several illustrators include in their editions of the story. Of all of the copies I have seen though, there is one image in the story that has stayed with me, that I have not seen included as an illustration. On the night Irene is given the thread from her great-great-grandmother, she is scared out of her room by a deformed, long-legged, cat-like creature. The author explains:

“My readers will suspect what these were; but I will now give them full information concerning them. They were, of course, household animals belonging to the goblins, whose ancestors had taken their ancestors many centuries before from the upper regions of light into the lower regions of darkness. The original stocks of these horrible creatures were very much the same as the animals now seen about farms and homes in the country, with the exception of a few of them, which had been wild creatures, such as foxes, and indeed wolves and small bears, which the goblins, from their proclivity towards the animal creation, had caught when cubs and tamed. But in the course of time all had undergone even greater changes than had passed upon their owners. They had altered—that is, their descendants had altered—into such creatures as I have not attempted to describe except in the vaguest manner—the various parts of their bodies assuming, in an apparently arbitrary and self-willed manner, the most abnormal developments. Indeed, so little did any distinct type predominate in some of the bewildering results, that you could only have guessed at any known animal as the original, and even then, what likeness remained would be more one of general expression than of definable conformation. But what increased the gruesomeness tenfold was that, from constant domestic, or indeed rather family association with the goblins, their countenances had grown in grotesque resemblance to the human.”

I find the lack of illustrations about this image (especially because of its relevance to the plot) particularly interesting because The Princess and the Goblin  was written by a pastor, six years after the publication of The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. The changes that take place over generations, in response to a radical change in environment, as described by the narrator of The Princess and the Goblin, sound an awful lot like Darwin’s theory of evolution. I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that the theory of evolution was so new and controversial at the time the book was first published.

Perhaps there are copies I have not seen that do include artistic renderings of the strange domestic animals. I must admit, I have yet to look at all seventeen copies available at The Osborne Collection. However, in the books I did look through, there were many illustrations of the same key moments in the plot. Many of them depict images that, after reading the text, I remember very clearly and I would have liked to see how others imagined the cat-like creature.

All photos were taken from books at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library:

1. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1920. Illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith.

2.  MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Puffin Classics, 1974. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.

3. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Strahan  & Co., Publishers, 1872. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.

4. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1913. Illustrated by Maria L. Kirk.

5. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Gobin. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1958. Illustrated by Charles Folkard.


Filed under Mel Rhodes Gray

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A pleasing land of drowsy head it was

Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye;

And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,

For ever flushing round a summer sky.

“The Castle of Indolence” by James Thomson, epigraph from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

While my niece decimated  an enormous pile of  bronzed leaves this autumn, around the time of Hallowe’en,  I distracted myself from the thought of raking them all up again with the dreamy imagery and descriptive passages I found in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving. We were not all that far away from the setting of that story–on the eastern banks of the Hudson River–so, I imagined the scenery was much the same.

Unfortunately, a trip to Sleepy Hollow (to confirm) is out of the question right now. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place in “one of the quietest places in the whole world,” which I was certainly not in at the time, and in a “remote period of American history,”  but, this illustration from a copy of the story, that I later found at The Osborne Collection, looks a lot like the scene I was standing in:

It also added the element of sailing to this new daydream of mine though, and I like that much better than the idea of an eight hour car ride.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow  was meant to be somewhat of a daydream kind of story, from what I can tell by reading it. It opens with a long description of the setting, a magical place, “under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie.”

I knew I would find great illustrations in the books I looked at in The Osborne Collection, and I was not disappointed. I have included photos of two of the copies they have available to view because they are so different but the illustrations were both gorgeous and reflect the imaginative tone of the story itself.

The photo above, and immediately below comes from a copy printed in 1906, with illustrations by, Arthur Ignatius Keller:

The second edition I looked at was published in 1926. It has beautiful drawings by Frances Brundage:

I have not yet shared this particular story with my niece. It was Halloween while I was visiting with her, so a ghost-story may have been in order, but she only recently turned 3 years old and her eyes still light up with surprise when anyone else seems to know the secret of “trick-or-treat.” So, it is a little too soon, but I look forward to sharing it with her someday.

It is a great ghost-story: it was found among the papers of a dead man and set in a bewitched location where anything might happen. At the same time, it makes reference to “most authentic historians,” and the Revolutionary War. The Headless Horseman is believed to be the ghost of a Hessian Soldier, “whose head had been carried away by a cannon ball.”

Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher and singing instructor moves to Sleepy Hollow from Connecticut. Tall and lanky, he moves from house to house, gossiping with housewives and flirting with the young women in town. He especially likes listening to the women tell local ghost stories, which is how he comes to hear the story of the headless horseman.

Crane has hopes of marrying one of his singing students, Katrina Van Tassel. She is eighteen years old, beautiful, and charming, but Crane is particularly interested in her because her father is wealthy and he especially likes the food at her house. Brom Bones is also courting Katrina and he would like to fight Crane for the right to court her exclusively. Crane refuses to fight, so Bones resorts to playing practical jokes on him.

One night, Mr. Van Tassel hosts a party for everyone in the village. Crane spends the night eating and swapping ghost stories with his neighbours. Before he leaves, he approaches Katrina to ask for her hand in marriage. No one knows what was said, but Crane leaves the party that night looking dejected.

“It was the very witching time of night” that Crane began his ride home alone. Along the way he sees a large shadowy figure on horseback and he can just make out the shape of a head on the pommel of the saddle. Crane races away on his own horse, Gunpowder, but he is chased and knocked unconscious. The last thing he remembers is the sight of the rider about to throw the head at him.

Crane is not seen in the village again. A search party finds his belongings on the road, beside a smashed pumpkin. With his rival out of the way, Brom Bones marries Katrina and Crane becomes a character in one of his favourite Sleepy Hollow ghost stories.

My summary does no justice to the descriptive passages in the story. You can read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow online at Project Gutenberg.  Or, you could go to The Osborne Collection to see a much more charming edition of the story.

All photos were taken at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library, from:

1. Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1906.Illustrations by Arthur Ignatius Keller. Presented to the Osborne Collection by Tony Hall.

2. Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. New York: The Salfield Publishing Company, 1926.  Illustrations by  Frances Brundage. Presented to the Osborne Collection from the estate of Erica McClocklin.

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Filed under Mel Rhodes Gray