Mabel Tainter Comes to Life on the Page

Haley Wright

illustrator Taylor Kysely, board member Judy Foust, and author Mary Heimstead created a book set at the Mabel Tainter Theater.
Illustrator Taylor Kysely, board member Judy Foust, and author Mary Heimstead created a book set at the Mabel Tainter Theater.

Mystery at the Mabel Tainter, a new children’s book written by local author Mary Heimstead and illustrated by UW-Eau Claire student Taylor Nicole Kysely, explores the history of the landmark Menomonie theater with a paranormal twist. The book, which is geared toward children ages 8 and older, features a pair of twins who are on a tour of the historic arts center. They become separated from their group and encounter a young woman who leads them through the Mabel Tainter while they learn about its history and encounter mystery and apparitions along the way. 

The book was commissioned by Judy Foust of the Mabel Tainter’s board of directors. “Judy asked for a children’s book, something that could be sold in the center’s gift shop,” Heimstead said. “Given the mystery within the storyline, it seems appropriate for children 8 and older.” She said she learned of the project and the illustrator, Kysely –who previously illustrated a children’s book for Beaver Creek Reserve – through a local author’s group. 

Heimstead said the inspiration for the story started with a tour. “Before I wrote the story, I took an extensive tour of the center,” she said. “Through the tour guide and within its website, there are references to apparitions at the center. I asked Judy if this information was fair game for the book. It was. Judy also wanted me to incorporate pieces of the center’s history into the book. I started to form an idea for the story while I was still on the tour.”

The arts center was built in 1889 by lumber baron Andrew Tainter to honor the memory of his daughter, Mabel, who died at age 19. The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, includes a lavish 251-seat Victorian theater.

Collaboration on the project between Heimstead, the author, and Kysely, the illustrator, continued until the project was completed. “I completed the story, followed by several rounds of editing by Judy before we started to work with Taylor,” Heimstead said. “I loved seeing how Taylor interpreted my words through her illustrations. They are beautiful and detailed. It’s the kind of work you would expect considering the beauty of the center.”

Kysely said that she knew what the main characters, Justin and Janey, looked like the first time she read the story. “I kept bringing in sketches and pages waiting to see what changes Mary and Judy might want, but everything just clicked,” Kysely said. 

Both the author and artist share a favorite illustration. “I am very partial to the page where the girl plays the piano on stage,” Kysely said. “It was really fun to create because the theater has all of these incredible architectural elements and hand-painted stenciling. I think it gives the reader a taste of what it feels like to see a performance at the Mabel.” 

Both Heimstead and Kysely said they hope the book inspires children’s interest in the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts. “I hope it sparks their curiosity,” Kysely said. “Walking around the Mabel Tainter is a transcendent experience – where you feel like you’re back in the 1890s. I want the readers to get a little taste of that intrigue and hopefully visit so they can see the Mabel Tainter for themselves.” 

The book has been very well-received. “We just had a book signing and release party and the interest from the community was really fantastic,” Kysely said. “There were so many people with these wonderful stories about their connections to the Mabel and how they want to share it with students or relatives. I think it’s a really inspired idea – to create a children’s book for a historical site, and there seems to be a fairly broad market.” Both Heimstead and Kysely said they are open to future collaboration on projects.  

To learn more about the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts – where you can also purchase a copy of the book – visit mabeltainter.org.