June 30, 2017

The Mysterious Librarian

Written by Dominique Demers
Translated by Sander Berg
Illustrated by Tony Ross
Alma Junior (Alma Books/Bloomsbury)
79 pp.
Ages 6-9
June 2017

Reading this translation of Dominique Demers' original La Mystérieuse Bibliothécaire (Québec Amérique, 1994) is like being transported to another time and place, one in which children are children, not junior adults, and books are vehicles of imaginative transport.  There are no cell phones or e-book readers or computers or any of the technology that makes life faster and connections immediate.  It's a time when a woman can appear out of nowhere and become The Mysterious Librarian of the small town of Saint-Anatole and no one can start researching her on the internet.  Simpler, easier times.

When Miss Charlotte appears at the office of Mayor Peevish to apply for a position of librarian, a position unfilled for 30 years, he hires her.  Miss Charlotte "who was very tall and very skinny and seemed to come out of nowhere ... wearing a massive hat and a long blue dress, which was quite elegant, although it had seen better days" (pg. 3) takes her position very seriously, cleaning the broom-closet of a library, taking an inventory of the books and resident spiders and mice (who become pets) and requesting additional funds for the purchase of new books, to replace those she deemed "as disgusting as old, overcooked broccoli." (pg. 16)
She imagined fabulous books, books that make you laugh, cry, shiver and dance.  Books that take you to the far-flung corners of the earth.  Books that tickle your brain, touch your heart and lift your spirits. (pg. 15)
Leo, a boy whose mother owns the pet store, meets Miss Charlotte when she comes in for spider and mouse food, and suspects she is the odd woman his friend Marie had told him about at summer camp (see the first book in the series, The New Teacher, 2016).  Intrigued, he visits Miss Charlotte at the library, fortuitously as he finds her seemingly unconscious on the floor of the library.  Leo realizes that she is alive but cannot be roused because she has become so involved in the book that she has been sucked in.  Reading aloud helps bring her back.

Unconventional as she is, Miss Charlotte wants to bring readers to the books, so she encourages the children at the school to visit the library.  Although they also witness Miss Charlotte in her sucked-into-a-book state, the library becomes a reading home to the children who take on the tasks of feeding a menagerie of animals, bringing in tents and blankets and other comforts, and helping with miscellaneous library chores.  But when Miss Charlotte cannot be roused from her reading of Beauty and the Beast, the children, led by Leo, find the means to help her back.

Dominique Demers is an award-winning Quebec author of picture books, chapter books, young adult and adult books, having written well over fifty books.  Because they are primarily French-language books, I have not had the opportunity to review any on CanLit for LittleCanadians so I am delighted to review this translation of The Mysterious Librarian here.  The Mysterious Librarian is charming and innocent and makes me long for libraries in which reading was everything.  We have gone so far into making libraries places of entertainment, with makerspaces and more, that the library and librarian of The Mysterious Librarian are refreshing and inviting, though many would say old-fashioned.  Maybe Miss Charlotte and her library are out of fashion but I like to think of them as classic, elegant and exemplary.  Having Tony Ross, who has illustrated books penned by Roald Dahl and Astrid Lindgren as well as the Horrid Harry, Amber Brown and Dr. Xargle series, is brilliant.  There's that lightness and gentility of line that conveys the essence of Miss Charlotte and her mission to encourage reading.
From The Mysterious Librarian 
by Dominique Demers 
illus. by Tony Ross
Miss Charlotte would love to have The Mysterious Librarian in her library for the children.  Your children can read The Mysterious Librarian themselves but, if you do read it aloud to them–and I encourage teachers and parents to do so–try not to laugh too much when the bully Martin wants a book with bare bottoms in it (and gets a book about a pig) and try not to get sucked in, unless you have someone nearby to get you out.

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