Downie, Mary Alice 1934–

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Downie, Mary Alice 1934–

(Mary Alice Dawe Downie)


Born February 12, 1934, in Alton, IL; immigrated to Canada, 1940; daughter of Robert Grant (a research scientist) and Doris Mary (Rogers) Hunter; married John Downie (a professor of chemical engineering), June 27, 1959; children: Christine, Jocelyn, Alexandra. Education: University of Toronto, B.A. (English language and literature; with honors), 1955. Religion: Anglican.


Home—190 Union St., Kingston, Ontario K7L 2P6, Canada. Agent—c/o Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia, 1113 Marginal Rd., Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4P7, Canada. E-mail[email protected].


Writer, critic, and editor. Maclean-Hunter, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, stenographer, 1955; Marketing magazine, Toronto, reporter, 1955–56; Canadian Medical Association Journal, Toronto, editorial assistant, 1956–57; Oxford University Press, Toronto, librarian and publicity manager, 1958–59; freelance writer, 1959–. Kingston Whig-Standard, Kingston, Ontario, bookreview editor, 1973–78. Founding editor, "Kids Canada" series, Kids Can Press, Toronto, and "Northern Lights" series, Peter Martin Associates, Toronto. Affiliated member of Senior Combination Room, Newnham College, Cambridge, 1988–89. Speaker at schools and workshops; creative artist in schools, beginning 1978; instructor at Upper Canada Writers' Workshop, 1984–86, 1988, 1993.


PEN, Writers Union of Canada (chairman, membership committee, 1987–88), Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia, Travel Media Association of Canada.

Awards, Honors

Ontario Arts Council awards, 1970, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1987, 1989, 1990; Canada Council arts awards, 1972–73, 1981–82; Canada Council short-term award, 1979; Children's Book Centre (CBC) Literary Competition, second prize in children's section (with John Downie), 1982, for "The Bright Paddles"; Exploration grant (with E. Greene and M.A. Thompson), 1984; Ontario Heritage Foundation grant, 1988; Multicultural Directorate grant, 1990; Laidlaw Foundation grant, 1997; CBC Choice designations.



(With husband, John Downie) Honor Bound, illustrated by Joan Huffman, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1971, revised edition illustrated by Wesley Bates, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1991.

(Translator and adaptor) The Magical Adventures of Pierre, illustrated by Yuksel Hassan, Thomas Nelson (Nashville, TN), 1974.

Scared Sarah, illustrated by Laszlo Gal, Thomas Nelson (Nashville, TN), 1974.

Dragon on Parade, illustrated by Mary Lynn Baker, PMA Books, 1974.

(Translator and adaptor) The Witch of the North: Folktales from French Canada, illustrated by Elizabeth Cleaver, Oberon Press, 1975.

The King's Loon/Un huart pour le roi, illustrated by Ron Berg, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1979.

The Last Ship, illustrated by Lissa Calvert, PMA Books, 1980.

(With George Rawlyk) A Proper Acadian, illustrated by Ron Berg, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1981, published as A Song for Acadia, Nimbus Publishing, 2004.

Jenny Greenteeth, illustrated by Anne Powell, Rhino Books, 1981, revised edition illustrated by Barbara Reid, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1984.

(Translator and adaptor) The Wicked Fairy-Wife: A French-Canadian Folktale, illustrated by Kim Price, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1983.

(With John Downie) Alison's Ghosts, illustrated by Paul McCusker, Thomas Nelson (Nashville, TN), 1984.

(Adaptor) How the Devil Got His Cat, illustrated by Jillian Gilliland, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1988.

(Adaptor; with Mann Hwa Huang-Hsu) The Buffalo Boy and the Weaver Girl, illustrated by Jillian Gilliland, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1989.

(Adaptor) Cathal the Giant Killer and the Dun Shaggy Filly, illustrated by Jillian Gilliland, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1991.

The Cat Park, illustrated by Kathryn Naylor, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1993.

Snow Paws, illustrated by Kathryn Naylor, Stoddart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996.

Bright Paddles, illustrated by Martin Springett, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.

(With John Downie) Danger in Disguise, Roussan (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 2000.

Scared Sarah, illustrated by Muriel Wood, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.

A Pioneer ABC, illustrated by Mary Jane Gerber, Tundra Books (Plattsburgh, NY), 2005.


(With Jillian Gilliland) Seeds and Weeds: A Book of Country Crafts, Four Winds Press, 1981.

(With Jillian Gilliland) Stones and Cones: Country Crafts for Kids, Scholastic/TAB Publications, 1984.


(With Barbara Robertson) The Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada, illustrated by Elizabeth Cleaver, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1968, revised edition (with Mary Hamilton) published as The New Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada, 1984.

(With Mary Hamilton) And Some Brought Flowers: Plants in a New World, illustrated by John Revell, University of Toronto Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1980.

(With Elizabeth Greene and M.A. Thompson) The Window of Dreams: New Canadian Writing for Children, Methuen (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1986.

(With Barbara Robertson) A.M. Klein, Doctor Dwarf, and Other Poems for Children, illustrated by Gail Geltner, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1990.

(With M.A. Thompson) Written in Stone: A Kingston Reader, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1993.


(With Barbara Robertson) The Wellfilled Cupboard: Everyday Pleasures of Home and Garden, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1987, reprinted, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.

(With Mary-Alice Thompson) The Kingdom of the Saguenay: A Musical Fable (play), music by Mark Sirett, produced in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 1998.

(With Mary-Alice Thompson) The Winter Children: A Musical Vignette (play), music by Mark Sirette, produced in Ontario, Canada, 1999.

Contributor (sometimes with John Downie) to anthologies, including Inside Outside, Holt, 1978; Measure Me Sky, Ginn, 1979; Crossroads I, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1979; Storytellers Rendezvous, Canadian Library Association, 1980; Out and About, Academic Press, 1981; All in Good Time, McGraw-Hill, 1985; Thread the Needle, Holt, 1987; Winter Welcomes, Thomas Nelson (Nashville, TN), 1987; Canadian Christmas Stories, Quarry Press, 1990; and This Land, Viking, 1998. Contributor of numerous stories, articles, and reviews to periodicals, including Horn Book, Pittsburgh Press, Ottawa Citizen, Globe & Mail, OWL, Chickadee, Montreal Gazette, Canadian Gardening, and Century Home.

Several of author's books have been translated into French.


Mary Alice Downie is one of Canada's best-known children's authors and editors. Many of her stories for younger readers are drawn from Canada's colonial past, which, as Downie once said, "is a short past when you consider the country but stretches out when the heritage of the immigrant is included." The result is fiction that "breathes life into distant periods of Canadian history," according to Joan McGrath in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. Deemed "irresistible" by McGrath, the young characters Downie features in her easy-to-read books Bright Paddles and Scared Sarah, are "believ-ably of their period, yet as lively and full of fun as their distant descendants who people the playgrounds of today."

Compiled after the author left her publishing career and while she was raising her three children, The Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada reflects the great diversity of that country. Works by forty-eight poets include such subjects as ice and cold, animal life, and Indians, as well as translations from Yiddish, French, and Eskimo verses. Since then she has coedited several other anthologies that feature Canadian writing for both children and adults, among them an updated version of her first collection, titled The New Wind Has Wings, which Zena Sutherland described in a review for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books as "a fine anthology" exhibiting "variety and vitality."

Downie's first, and perhaps most ambitious, historical novel, Honor Bound, was written in collaboration with her husband, professor and former chemical engineer John Downie. During the American Revolution, many within the thirteen colonies remained loyal to England's King George III. After the war, large numbers of these British loyalists decided to escape the persecution they endured from the victorious colonists and move north to the wilderness of Canada, where they became known as United Empire Loyalists. Honor Bound tells the story of one family, whose members leave their "civilized" Philadelphia home to start a new life in the Canadian backwoods. Not only must the family leave behind their home and possessions, they must also move without their daughter, Honor, who was visiting relatives when Colonial vigilantes struck, and whose fate is now unknown. Terence Scully, writing for Canadian Children's Literature, commented on the double meaning of the title—the family's search for dignity in their new home as well as their effort to reunite the family—and noted that "the narrative has a rousing beginning, a convincing progression from episode to episode … and above all a satisfying distinct conclusion where 'Honor' has been reached."

An orphan is the central character in The King's Loon/Un huart pour le roi, a fictional story set against the real historical events of seventeenth-century Governor Frontenac's efforts to establish an agreement with an Iroquois tribe. Andre runs away from his well-meaning but nagging foster mother, Tante Louet, and stows away on the governor's ship. After his discovery, he captures a loon, which he hope will be his ticket to meeting the king of France. The loon languishes in its cage, however, and when Andre decides to set it free, he learns through the loon's ungrateful behavior how hurtful his own careless behavior has been to Tante Louet. The historical facts Downie relates supplement Andre's "appealing story," according to McGrath.

Details of seventeenth-century life are likewise vividly displayed in The Last Ship, which presents the experiences of ten-year-old Madeleine. Every year, when the last supply ship leaves Quebec to return to France, the French inhabitants of the growing city feel cut off and exiled from their old lives. In this story, which In Review contributor Mary Anne Buchowski-Monnin called "a pleasant introduction to Canadian history for young children," Madeleine fails in an attempt to sneak into the governor's ball, witnesses a fire, and realizes that it is Quebec, not France, that is now truly her home.

A Proper Acadian—republished under the title A Song for Acadia to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Acadia in 2004—makes a complicated subject understandable for young readers. Twelve-year-old Timothy, living in Boston in the 1750s, is sent to live with his aunt after he is orphaned by his mother's death. His aunt and her family are Acadians, people of French descent living in Nova Scotia in an area the French ceded to England in the early 1700s. Timothy must make a choice between his native New England and his beloved adopted family when the deportation of Acadians is ordered, and his aunt's family must go into exile. McGrath called this story of conflicting family and national loyalties "vividly told," while in Resource Links Victoria Pennell praised the book as "well told," and a story in which "the loyalty and stamina of the Acadian people is accurately portrayed."

Geared for slightly younger readers, Scared Sarah introduces a nine-year-old girl living in the northern Canadian wilderness in the early decades of the 1800s. In addition to bears, wolves, and snakes, a witch tree growing near Sarah's forested home causes the timid child to avoid traveling far, despite the teasing she receives from her much-braver siblings. In Downie's tale, which is heavily salted with historical facts, a friendship with an Ojibwa boy named Bright Fire helps Sarah learn that everyone has fears and that there are ways to deal with them.

In A Pioneer ABC Downie provides even younger children with a taste of Canadian history; the book assembles twenty-six images of life in pioneering times, one for each letter of the alphabet. Illustrated with detailed paintings by Mary Jane Gerber, A Pioneer ABC was praised by Pennell as "a great way to introduce young children to an earlier time," while in School Library Journal Grace Oliff deemed the book "an attractive title … for browsing and a useful teaching tool."

Another story written in collaboration with her husband, Danger in Disguise takes readers back to 1759, as Scottish immigrant Jamie Macpherson and his father are living in hiding in France. The two become separated and make plans to reunite in Scotland, but on his way through England Jamie is caught by a press gang in Glasgow, transported to Portsmouth, and shipped to Canada to fight for England against the French. Noting the quick-moving plot, School Library Journal contributor Susan Shaver added that the Downies' "well-researched" novel "successfully creates intrigue and suspense," while a Resource Links writer deemed Danger in Disguise an "interesting read" that focuses on a "little-known era of Canadian history."

Downie is also well established as a reteller of folktales. Several of these are adaptations of French-Canadian tales, while others retell an old Chinese legend and a Scottish fable. The Wicked Fairy-Wife is a chilling story that, like many European-based folk tales, contains a large measure of violence. A beautiful young farm girl named Josette married the handsome prince of the realm. A few years later, an evil fairy comes along, usurps Josette's place as queen, and orders her killed. The executioners, however, take pity on her; they
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merely pluck out Josette's eyes and leave her alone in the forest. There, Josette not only survives, she also bears the king's son, who grows up to avenge his mother and reunite his parents. Reviewer Mary Ainslie Smith commented in Books in Canada that, "in spite of the violence of many of the incidents, Downie tells the story with cheerful humour."

How the Devil Got His Cat, another French-Canadian tale about the clash between good and evil, has its origins in a French folk story. In Downie's version, at a convent in Quebec, an old wooden bridge collapses. No one can be found to build a new, stronger bridge until a stranger appears. He wants no money for the job—only the soul of the first creature to cross the bridge. Although the stranger (the devil, of course) tries to trick the Mother Superior into crossing first, she sends her beloved black cat instead, and the feline remains with the devil forever. This traditional tale, combined with the striking silhouette illustrations of Jillian Gilliland, makes "a compelling and enjoyable story for young children," Eva Martin wrote in Canadian Children's Literature.

The Buffalo Boy and the Weaver Girl, written with Mann Hwa Huang-Hsu, is based on an ancient Chinese legend about a young man who is driven from his home by a jealous sister-in-law, together with the family's buffalo. Unbeknownst to her, the buffalo has magical powers, and with these the young man finds a new home and a beautiful wife. The work features silhouette art by Gilliland that "perfectly complements" Downie's "well-crafted, compelling text," according to Bernie Goedhart in Quill & Quire.

Downie explores her Scottish roots in Cathal the Giant Killer and the Dun Shaggy Filly, about a man's search for his wife, who has been stolen by a local giant. Downie creates a singsong quality with her words, which Canadian Children's Literature contributor Gillian Harding-Russell described as "lovely flowing rhythms … emphasized by … a periodic repetition." In Cathal the Giant Killer and the Dun Shaggy Filly, the critic added, "we feel the magic touch of an artist storyteller."

Not all of Downie's works are historical novels or folktale adaptations for the elementary grades; she has also written for younger readers as well as for toddlers. Cynthia Kittleson, in a review for School Library Journal, wrote that Jenny Greenteeth is a "refreshing change," being a "silly story with a witch whose life goes beyond Halloween." In this story, everyone in the town of Denim is afraid of the once-popular water witch. The mayor orders her captured, and only young David is brave enough to confront her and offer a solution: a toothbrush and toothpaste. Praising the story's "lighthearted humor," In Review contributor Hope Bridgewater said that the idea that fears should be confronted logically makes for "a worthwhile message."

In Snow Paws, a companion book to The Cat Park, Downie tells the story of a young boy who becomes friends with a snowcat his siblings sculpt from freshly fallen snow. With its red earmuffs and marble eyes, the snow creature lasts for many weeks in the Canadian cold, and through the boy's imagination the two share a series of amazing adventures until warming weather comes. Praising Kathryn Naylor's "soft, whimsical" illustrations, a Resource Links contributor also cited Downie's "humorous depiction" of the cats populating her story.

"As a writer I spend a great deal of my time on the wrong track; for every book that has been published there is another manuscript in the attic," Downie once told SATA. "I get an idea (become obsessed by, is nearer the truth) or stumble across interesting material in the Queen's University stacks. With mounting enthusiasm I turn it into an un-publishable manuscript. After a certain amount of brooding about this, it occurs to me what I should really be doing and I set to work once more.

"The Wind Has Wings sprang from the ashes of an anthology of poetry for four-to-six-year olds (in that case the publisher saw what should be done); Honor Bound [came] from an eighteenth-century diary owned by a landlady. The Witch of the North, a collection of French-Canadian witch and devil legends, resulted from reading done for an ill-fated sequel to Honor Bound.

"My husband, who acts as unpaid editor and occasionally as coauthor, describes me as a 'relentless follower of false trails.' There are undoubtedly more efficient ways of writing, but as the travel articles say—the side roads are the most interesting. They still are."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, edited by Laura Standley Berger, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 301-303.


Books for Young People, August, 1988, p. 4.

Books in Canada, January, 1984, Mary Ainslie Smith, review of The Wicked Fairy-Wife: A French-Canadian Folktale, p. 26; October, 1986, p. 38.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1985, Zena Sutherland, review of The New Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada, p. 145.

Canadian Book Review Annual, 1996, review of Snow Paws, p. 439; 1999, review of Bright Paddles, p. 489; 2002, review of Scared Sarah, p. 487.

Canadian Children's Literature, numbers 23-24, 1981, Terence Scully, "Canadian Colonial Vignettes," pp. 97-98; number 29, 1983, pp. 77-80; number 41, 1986, pp. 56-57; numbers 57-58, 1990, Eva Martin, "Fairy Tales Retold or Newly Created," pp. 116-117; annual 1994, pp. 86-88; 2001, review of Bright Paddles, pp. 85-86.

In Review, February, 1981, Mary Anne Buchowski-Monnin, review of The Last Ship, pp. 35-36; April, 1982, Hope Bridgewater, review of Jenny Greenteeth, p. 42.

Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1972, p. 4.

Quill & Quire, June, 1982, p. 36; June, 1984, p. 35; September, 1989, Bernie Goedhart, review of The Buffalo Boy and the Weaver Girl, p. 22; August, 1996, review of Snow Paws, p. 43.

Resource Links, October, 1997, review of Snow Paws, p. 15; June 2000, review of Bright Paddles, p. 6; April, 2001, Victoria Pennell, review of Danger in Disguise, p. 10; October, 2002, Connie Forst, review of Scared Sarah, p. 12; October, 2004, Victoria Pennell, review of A Song for Acadia, p. 12; October, 2005, Victoria Pennell, review of A Pioneer ABC, p. 2.

School Library Journal, May, 1981, p. 54; November, 1985, p. 83; May, 2001, Susan Shaver, review of Danger in Disguise, p. 149; November, 2005, Grace Oliff, review of A Pioneer ABC, p. 113.

Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 1969, p. 353; May, 1985, Cynthia Kittleson, review of Jenny Greenteeth, p. 72.


Canadian Review of Materials Online, http://www.umanitoba/ca/cm/ (May, 1984), Ron Robe, review of The Wicked Fairy-Wife; (January, 1985) Joan Weller, review of The New Wind Has Wings, and Maryleah Otto, review of Jenny Greenteeth; (October, 1991) Theo Hersh, review of Cathal the Giant Killer and the Dun Shaggy Filly; (January 17, 2003) review of Scared Sarah.

Red Cedar Awards Web site, (June 14, 2006), "Mary Alice and John Downie."

Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia Web site, (August 15, 2005), "Mary Alice Downie."