________________ CM . . . . Volume VI Number 12 . . . . February 18, 2000

cover The Clay Ladies.

Michael Bedard. Illustrated by Les Tait.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 1999.
40 pp., cloth, $19.99.
ISBN 0-88776-385-5.

Subject Headings:
Loring, Frances, 1887-1968-Juvenile fiction.
Wyle, Florence, 1881-1968-Juvenile fiction.
Women sculptors-Juvenile fiction.
Intergenerational relations-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Val Nielsen.

*** /4

image In The Clay Ladies, Michael Bedard has once again shown his ability to bring to life literary and artistic figures of the past by a skillful blending of fact and fiction. Previous picture books have included Emily (1992), a tale involving a young girl's friendship with Emily Dickinson, and The Divide (1997), a story of nine-year old Willa Cather's move to Nebraska. In The Clay Ladies, Bedard uses a fictitious incident to create a story based on the lives of two real-life clay sculptors, Frances Loring and Florence Wylie, who lived and worked in Toronto from the 1920's to the 1960's. This eccentric pair, known to their neighbours as "The Clay Ladies," lived in an old building "...painted red, with pointed windows and a steep pitched roof...called the Church, for it had been one once, but was no more." The narrator of The Clay Ladies is a grandmother who re-creates a story from her girlhood for her small grandson. As a child, she tells him, she often hid behind the hedge watching the Clay Ladies, noticing that children would sometimes bring sick or injured pets to the Church. One day, the little girl rescues a wounded bird from a cat and knows just where to take it. She is welcomed by Frances Loring who takes her into the old house where she is greeted by a magnificent jumble of half-finished sculptures, towering pieces of pottery and mysterious things draped with wet cloths, all interspersed with cats, sleeping, lurking and prowling. The little girl takes the young robin to Florence Wylie, a small, sharp woman in a clay-smeared smock, who finds a cage for the fledgling to live in until his feathers grow. Drawn by the kindness and compassion of the two sculptors and the wonders inside their domain, the little girl makes many return visits to the Church. Inevitably, one of the Clay Ladies gives her a lump of clay, and she is on her way to finding the creative powers within her.

Toronto artist Les Tait, whose illustrations for Sheldon Oberman's The White Stone in the Castle Wall helped that book become a finalist for the Ruth Schwartz award, has filled his paintings with authentic detail, including some of the sculptors' best known work. His use of cool, bright colours evokes a mood of serenity, giving the reader an eye-filling picture of the wilderness outside the old church as well as the clutter of creativity within.

Although Bedard's prose is graceful and his exploration of the mystery of creative inspiration an appealing theme, the story is somewhat thin and unlikely to hold the attention of younger children for long (although they will almost certainly enjoy hunting for the multitude of cats to be found hiding out in unexpected places in each painting). Art teachers might find The Clay Ladies useful as an introduction to a sculpting activity or a unit on sculpture.


Valerie Nielsen is a retired teacher-librarian living in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364