Michael Bedard (1949-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1949, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Education: University of Toronto, B.A., 1971.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Tundra Books, 481 University Avenue, Suite 900, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5G 2E9.
Full-time writer, 1982—. St. Michael's College Library, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Library assistant, 1971-78; Gardenshore Press, Toronto, pressman, 1978-81.
Governor General's Literary Award, Canada, 1990, Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for Children, IODE Violet Downey Book Award, National Chapter of Canada, and runner-up, Young Adult Canadian award, all 1991, all for Redwork; IODE Book Award (Toronto chapter), 1991, for Nightingale.
Woodsedge and Other Tales, Gardenshore Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1979.
Pipe and Pearls: A Gathering of Tales, Gardenshore Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1980.
A Darker Magic, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1987.
The Lightning Bolt, illustrated by Regolo Ricci, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Redwork, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1990.
(Reteller) The Tinder Box, illustrated by Regolo Ricci, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Reteller) The Nightingale, illustrated by Regolo Ricci, Clarion (New York, NY), 1991.
Emily (biography), illustrated by Barbara Cooney, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
Painted Devil, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1994.
The Divide (biography), illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1997.
Glass Town: The Secret World of the Brontë Children (biography), illustrated by Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1997.
The Clay Ladies, illustrated by Les Tait, Tundra Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1998, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 1999.
Sitting Ducks, Putnam & Grosset (New York, NY), 1998.
The Wolf of Gubbio, illustrated by Murray Kimber, Stoddart Kids (New York, NY), 2000.
Stained Glass, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 2001.
The Painted Wall and Other Strange Tales: Selected and Adapted from the Liao-Chai of Pu Sung-ling, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 2003.
Canadian author Michael Bedard has written award-winning mystery and suspense novels such as Redwork, about the bond between two young children and an old man who practices alchemy, and A Darker Magic and Painted Devil, two books that investigate the limits of evil. He has also written biographies for children of writers Emily Dickinson and Willa Cather and artists Florence Wyle and Frances Loring, as well as retellings of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and stories from ancient China. As interviewer Marie C. Davis explained in Canadian Children's Literature, Bedard is not only eclectic in subject matter, but is also well known for his "generic slipperiness:" his ability to blend realism, fantasy, mystery, and elements of the psychological thriller to come up with his own unique creations. "We can read Bedard as a philosopher spinning fables about the dangers of passivity," Davis wrote, "an elegist of lower middle-class simplicities and early adolescence, a dramatist staging a battle between light and dark, a poet of tenderness, solitude and silence, a contemplative witness to the allure of the dark." These are all facets of Bedard, who in the same interview described his work as closer to the act of giving birth than of building a house. "Writing is dreaming," he told Davis. "And writing a novel is like dreaming a long dream."
The oldest of five children, Bedard grew up in a bustling, active household where books were a rare commodity. Fortunately, in a half dozen novels inherited from an uncle, he encountered characters such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Long John Silver and Tarzan, and was initiated into "the magic of books," as he explained in a biographical essay for the Seventh Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. "It is a magic which time has not dulled; each time I begin a book now it is with the same sense of opening a way into another world, of embarking on an adventure into un-charted territory." Bedard's first experience with writing came in high school when a teacher introduced him to poets such as William Blake, John Keats, T. S. Eliot, and Emily Dickinson, and he soon determined to become a writer himself. Studying both English and philosophy at the University of Toronto, Bedard graduated in 1971 and took a job in a university library. He also married and began raising a family. While working as a pressman for a small print shop, he found a publisher for his first two original fairy tale collections for children, Woodsedge and Other Tales and Pipe and Pearls.
From the outset, Bedard followed a challenging path as a writer. In both his early collections he made few concessions to young readers in terms of language. Although some reviewers complained, Leslie B. Koster, writing in In Review, noted that the tales in Woodsedge are "successfully rendered, with the evocative atmosphere of the traditional tale." Koster added that "the stories vary sufficiently, having interesting storylines with likable heroes and heroines struggling over the arduous paths to their just rewards." Koster also noted that the stories in Pipes and Pearls are "more sophisticated and even adult in tone." This adult tone is a quality Bedard has maintained throughout his fiction, preventing critics from attaching a label to his body of work. "I think that the task of the writer is to break down as many barriers that would enclose the writing as he possibly can," Bedard told Davis in his Canadian Children's Literature interview. "I think that there must be an element of insurrection in the act of writing itself. I'm uncomfortable with the writing being tame enough to fit comfortably in one particular genre."
A Darker Magic, Bedard's first novel, in no way fits readily into one genre or another. It is the story of an elderly teacher, Miss Potts, who discovers a handbill for a magic show to be staged by Professor Mephisto, a show which she remembers from her own youth in 1936. The teacher still feels this magic show was responsible for the death of her friend, and now she fears for those in the present audience. Aided by one of her pupils, Emily Endicott, Miss Potts attempts to unravel the mystery of the show and other strange events occurring in the town. However, mystery and suspense is not all Bedard serves up in his novel: there are also sub-plots involving Emily and her family and Miss Potts and other lodgers. "Particularly well done is the characterization of Emily's brother Albert, a monstrous toddler," observed David Gale in School Library Journal, adding that the activities of Albert "change the pace and ease the tension" of the central story. Welwyn Wilton Katz, reviewing A Darker Magic in Books in Canada, called the novel "a work of great originality" and "one of the most terrifying books that I've ever read," while a Children's Book News contributor dubbed the novel "a masterful debut" and concluded "It's not a book to be missed."
In his next title Bedard draws on fairy tales with a theme reversal on the old tale of "The Fisherman and His Wife." In The Lightning Bolt, illustrated by Regolo Ricci, the author tells the story of an old woman who comes upon a hole at the base of a fallen tree while out gathering wood. The woman enters the hole to discover an old man caught in the roots. Freeing him, she is rewarded with a magic wishing stick as well as a magic cap that enables her to see into the thoughts of others. Back home, her lazy husband takes the stick, and sets about making wish after greedy wish. The wife, employing the magic of the cap, sees there is no good in her spouse; she hides the stick from him, and he subsequently becomes ensnared in the underground roots, a victim of his own greed. "Bedard captures a real storyteller's voice," Sarah Ellis commented in a Horn Book review, commending the author's sophisticated style. Ellis also noted that, like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, Bedard provides a "note of dissonance in the final chord"; the book ends: "From that day forward the woman gathered wood in the forest as she had before. Still, there was one old tree that she did not go near, where more than the wind moaned in the branches."
The title of Bedard's second novel, Redwork, refers to the final step in an alchemical process whereby a substance is heated to final refinement, turns blood-red in color, and is then capable of setting off transformational processes in the world. The book revolves around the alchemical practices of Mr. Magnus, a recluse who hopes to regain his spiritual youth, which was cut off in World War I. He is aided in his labors by young Cass, who, with his mother, rents a flat in Magnus's house, and by Maddy, a young friend of Cass. Again, rich sub-plots feature the novel's supporting cast: Cass's single mother Alison begins her long-delayed thesis on William Blake; Cass's job at a local movie theater forces him to deal with a bullying head usher. "Bedard's story is multilayered, and his writing is graceful and poetic," commented Kenneth Oppel in a Quill and Quire review of the novel. Patrick Jones, in Voice of Youth Advocates, noted the meticulous care with which Bedard sets his scenes and builds his story: "Bedard's writing is dense. Everything is described in detail, every point is made with dialogue, and each scene is fleshed out considerably." Comparing Bedard's work to popular teen-thriller writers such as R. L. Stine, Jones concluded that Bedard "is working on a different level." Redwork won several prizes, among them the Governor General's Literary Award and the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for Children.
In addition to retelling several stories by Hans Christian Andersen, Bedard also serves as a reteller of ancient Chinese fables in The Painted Wall and Other Strange Tales. These stories, first collected by Pu Sung-ling during the seventeenth century, are well-known in China. Bedard, working from others' translations, "has shortened and simplified each tale," as Margaret A. Chang explained in Horn Book, "reporting fantastic events in unadorned, straightforward prose." Because the stories are short and simple, Linda M. Kenton noted in School Library Journal, they are "accessible to reluctant readers," while Resource Links contributor Joanne de Groot suggested using the tales as a "read aloud to tie into a unit on China."
With 1992's Emily, Bedard turned his hand to biography, recounting an imagined incident in the life of New England poet Emily Dickinson. The book recounts the meeting of a young girl with the reclusive Dickinson, dubbed "the Myth" by some of her Amherst, Massachusetts, neighbors. The young girl's family is new to the neighborhood, and her mother is invited to play piano for the mysterious neighbor one day; Emily, however, escapes upstairs when the playing begins, and the child joins the poet on the upstairs landing for a time. "The story is very quiet and beautifully crafted," noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Nancy Vasilakis, writing in Horn Book, commented that Bedard's prose "resonates with the mystical wonder and terse rhythms of Emily Dickinson's poetry." The author is able to give a "sense of observant wonder," added Anne Denoon in Books in Canada, citing lines such as "the road was full of mud and mirrors where the sky peeked at itself."
Bedard has gone on to write several other picture-book biographies of writers and artists. The Divide tells the story of young author Willa Cather, who moved from Virginia to Nebraska in 1883. As an adult Cather would write moving novels about the plains, but as a child she had to learn to love the stark beauty of her new home. "Bedard's plain physical words are true to Cather's prose," Hazel Rochman noted in Booklist, and a Resource Links contributor deemed The Divide "an exquisitely crafted, poetic story." Glass Town is a fictionalized account of the daily lives of the talented English Brontë children that finds them just beginning to create their imaginary world, called Glass Town, and write little books about it. And, in The Clay Ladies, Bedard writes about Canadian sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, who shared a studio—a converted church—in Toronto for forty years. The story is framed as a grandmother telling a story to her grandson about how, when she was a young girl, she came to know Loring and Wyle. "This is an excellent picture book with a thoughtful, well-written text," Ann Abel declared in Resource Links: "The details are vivid; the language is rich."
Utilizing the format of the old Punch and Judy shows, Bedard once again focuses on the world of evil in Painted Devil. Protagonist Emily Endicott from A Darker Magic returns to his fiction in the guise of Aunt Emily, who helps her young niece, Alice, battle the ancient evil. Alice, working a summer job at the local library and helping to produce a Punch and Judy show, is caught up in frightening events as one of the puppets begins to take on a life of its own. Aunt Emily finds connections between this collection of old puppets and sinister events of a magic show which took place years ago. She and Alice ultimately help break the spell that the devil puppet has cast over the young librarian, Mr. Dwyer, and help restore peace in Caledon, Ontario. Irene E. Aubrey, in Quill and Quire, wrote that Painted Devil "is a well-written novel that depicts good and evil forces at play, and the positive results that ensue when fears … are met and conquered." Reviewing the novel in Booklist, Stephanie Zvirin commented that there "is no doubt that Bedard knows how to create chilling atmosphere," and that he "invokes a sense of mystery and foreboding so vividly that the story is very hard to put down."
Stained Glass, a "carefully constructed novel," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor, "is rooted in mysticism, but its heartfelt scenes are grounded in reality." The tale centers around the shattered lives of two children, Charles and Ambriel, and their attempts to piece together a more positive future. Charles, grieving the death of his father, plays hooky from his piano lessons in St. Bartholomew's Church one day when a stained glass window breaks, injuring an apparently homeless girl beneath it. The girl remembers nothing of her life, so Charles accompanies her as she travels around the city trying to recover her memories. As Charles spends more time with her, he begins to wonder if she is real, or an angel, or something else; meanwhile, she helps him to deal with his own grief and brokenness. In interwoven passages the caretaker of the church, who is attempting to piece the window back together, tells his own story of loss. "Bedard has achieved a breathtaking marriage of structure, image, and theme," Anita L. Burkam marvelled in Horn Book. The image of unified items—stained-glass windows, quilts, puzzles—assembled out of small pieces pervades the tale, even as the reader attempts to piece vignettes from Charles's memory together into the story of his life. The book "does move slowly and is more character-than plot-driven," Lisa Prolman noted in School Library Journal, but readers who enjoy "a more introspective book" will find "a quiet masterpiece." Similarly, a Kirkus Reviews critic praised "Bedard's language," which "is evocative and poetic, rich in metaphor and symbol," but concluded that Stained Glass is "not for everyone, or even for most, but a small gem awaiting the special reader."
For Bedard, the real evil in the world is the constricting of imagination. The primal fight then is not so much between good and evil, but between unfolding and funneling, light and dark—between the white noise of modern civilization and the creative silence within each of us. "You need solitude to face the dark," Bedard said in his Canadian Children's Literature interview. "Silence can be the condition … of reflection. Mystery lives there.… I firmly believe that the artist in our day must be in the service of silence. That is the ground art has to defend."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Bedard, Michael, The Lightning Bolt, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Bedard, Michael, Emily, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
Seventh Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, H. W. Wilson (New York, NY), 1996.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, fourth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Booklist, March 1, 1994, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Painted Devil, p. 1249; August, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of Glass Town, p. 1897; October 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of The Divide, p. 334; May 1, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of The Clay Ladies, p. 1597; April 15, 2001, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Wolf of Gubbio, p. 1548; January 1, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of The Painted Wall and Other Strange Tales, p. 851.
Books in Canada, April, 1988, Welwyn Wilton Katz, review of A Darker Magic, p. 36; December, 1992, Anne Denoon, review of Emily, pp. 30-32; December, 2001, review of Stained Glass, p. 45.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1987, p. 2; January, 1993, p. 140; May, 1994, p. 281.
Canadian Children's Literature (annual), 1991, Laurence Steven, "Excellent Alchemy," pp. 72-73, and Ulrike Walker, review of The Tinder Box, pp. 83-87; 1993, Marnie Parsons, "Changing Tunes," pp. 92-94; 1996, Marie C. Davis, interview with Bedard, pp. 22-39; summer, 2000, review of Clay Ladies, pp. 92-93; fall, 2002, Kathryn Carter, review of The Wolf of Gubbio, p. 80.
Children's Book News, winter, 1987, review of A Darker Magic, p. 11.
Horn Book, May-June, 1990, Sarah Ellis, "News from the North," p. 367; January-February, 1993, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Emily, pp. 72-73; January-February, 2002, Anita L. Burkam, review of Stained Glass, p. 76; January-February, 2004, Margaret A. Chang, review of The Painted Wall and Other Strange Tales, p. 93.
In Review, February, 1980, Leslie B. Koster, review of Woodsedge and Other Tales, p. 34; August, 1981, Leslie B. Koster, review of Pipes and Pearls: A Gathering of Tales, p. 28.
Kirkus Reviews, December, 1992, review of Emily, p. 26; October 15, 2001, review of Stained Glass, p. 1480.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 22, 1987, p. 10.
New York Times Book Review, March 28, 1993, p. 21.
Publishers Weekly, August 14, 1987, Diane Roback, review of A Darker Magic, p. 105; April 6, 1992, review of The Nightingale, p. 65; November 16, 1992, review of Emily, p. 63; March 14, 1994, review of Painted Devil, p. 74; September 22, 1997, review of The Divide, p. 80; April 19, 1999, review of The Clay Ladies, p. 73; December 3, 2001, review of Stained Glass, p. 60.
Quill and Quire, August, 1990, Christtine Fondse, review of The Tinder Box, p. 14; September, 1990, Kenneth Oppel, review of Redwork, p. 20; April, 1994, Irene E. Aubrey, review of Painted Devil, pp. 38-39; September, 1997, review of The Divide, p. 72; October, 1997, review of Glass Town: The Secret World of the Brontë Children, pp. 41, 43; March, 1999, review of Clay Ladies, p. 67; November, 2000, review of The Wolf of Gubbio, p. 37.
Resource Links, February, 1998, review of The Divide, p. 100; June, 1999, Ann Abel, review of Clay Ladies, pp. 1-2; February, 2001, review of The Wolf of Gubbio, p. 1; December, 2001, Margaret Mackey, review of Stained Glass, p. 37; December, 2003, Joanne de Groot, review of The Painted Wall and Other Strange Tales, p. 36.
School Arts, October, 1999, Ken Marantz, review of The Clay Ladies, p. 62.
School Library Journal, September, 1987, David Gale, review of A Darker Magic, p. 177; September, 1997, Barbara Elleman, review of The Divide, p. 199; October, 1997, Wendy Lukehart, review of Glass Town, p. 128; November, 1999, Susan Scheps, review of The Clay Ladies, p. 110; January, 2002, Lisa Prolman, review of Stained Glass, p. 131; January, 2004, Linda M. Kenton, review of The Painted Wall and Other Strange Tales, p. 140.
Times Educational Supplement, July 1, 1994, p. R2.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1987, p. 242; December, 1990, Patrick Jones, review of Redwork, p. 293; April, 1993, p. 34; June, 1994, p. 96.
Wilson Library Bulletin, February, 1995, Cathi Dunn MacRae, review of Painted Devil, p. 98.
Canadian Children's Book Centre Web site, http://collections.ic.gc.ca/ (May 31, 2004), "Michael Bedard."
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