French-Canadian children’s books are often philosophical in nature, and this is especially true of picture books written for older children. The Fabulous World of Mr. Fred is a shining example, telling the story of Pierrot, an imaginative boy who encounters an old man reading an invisible book. While most people would dismiss or even avoid the elderly stranger, Pierrot approaches him and asks for a story. The man – named Mr. Fred – obliges by telling a fabulous tale, and Pierrot finds himself returning to see him on a regular basis. Most of the fables are wondrous, but one day Mr. Fred shares the tragic story of how he lost his family, and tells Pierrot that he overcame terrible grief thanks to the kindness of a stranger. Shortly after this last encounter, Mr. Fred passes away, and Pierrot decides to share his friend’s stories with others to help him live on.
Lili Chartrand (Taming Horrible Harry) is known for her touching books. In Mr. Fred, she creates an imaginative, multi-layered fable about overcoming obstacles and taking chances. Parents and children will come away from it with different impressions: adults will identify with Mr. Fred, while children will be enchanted by the story’s magic. The narrative does lose some of its charm in translation; though the English version is lovely, the French feels more cohesive.
Gabrielle Grimard’s watercolour, gouache, and oil-paint illustrations more than make up for any awkwardness in translation. The art flows gracefully across the page. Warm and touching, it perfectly complements the story’s spirit.
The French-language edition of this book (Le monde fabuleux de Monsieur Fred) was a finalist for the Québec/Wallonie-Bruxelles prize, a 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award, and a Prix des libraires du Québec selection. Though the English version lacks some if the original’s finesse, readers should still feel fortunate to live in a country where high-quality literature for children is being produced in both official languages. The Fabulous World of Mr. Fred begs to be shared among parents, grandparents, and children.