The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 11, No 2 (2007)

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Kathleen Bailey is a children's librarian at North York Central Library in Toronto. Kathleen has worked as a children's librarian for The Toronto Public Library since 1985. Many newcomer families flood into her library, telling stories of their journeys to Canada. Kathleen is involved in the storytelling community, and is presently enjoying the Toronto Festival of Storytelling, which is in its 29th year.

A few memories from another Looking Glass founding contributor, Kathleen Bailey

How did the Looking Glass start? Annette Goldsmith and I were away in Bermuda, staying in a friend's small, inexpensive ( read bargain! ) flat near the sea. As we listened to tree frogs chirping in the spring night, and the hour grew late, our talk circled round to how to share our excitement about trends in the children's literature world across the miles with others. We decided that an electronic journal was the perfect solution, as all it demanded was intense interest, dialogue via e-mail, editing via e-mail, and lots of time spent writing! We went on from there, recruiting volunteers to be involved, and happily finding that there were other children's literature aficionados who were glad to join in the online conversation!

Kathleen highlights three books which encourage readers of all ages to look outside their own world and to grow in empathy for the plight of others.


The Heart of a Child

Kathleen Bailey

The heart of a child is deep, and sensitive. Recently I heard a young girl say: "Homeless people have to stay outside, and they haven't any money." This comment came on a cold winter's day, when most people were indoors. Children and teens often pierce through layers of explanation to the bottom line, making adults uncomfortable.

As a children's librarian, I am firmly convinced that powerful, well written stories help readers to develop depth in their thinking, and a sense of compassion. I am not venturing into the sticky territory of bibliotherapy, but I am interested in what may influence the development of a mensch. (A friend of mine defined a mensch as a good soul.)

What then, are some books which I consider to be catalysts for challenging children and adults to look outside their daily lives? In other words, what will compel them to look through the window to a different world, instead of gazing into the mirror?

Pamela Porter's Canadian novel, The Crazy Man is a good place to start.

Writing with grace, and power, Porter opens the door to Emaline's story. Disabled by a farm accident, Emaline's life is forever changed. As her mother tries to cope with this, the desertion of her husband who is overwhelmed by the tragedy, and keeping the farm going, we meet Angus, a gentle man who is labelled as crazy. The stigma of mental illness looms large in the minds of people in the community, and separates Angus from them. However, as Emaline comes to know him, she gradually teaches her mother how to draw Angus into contact again, by sharing meals at their table.

Angus has been so badly treated that he refers to himself in the third person, as if he was merely an observer. He thinks that he can never forgive his mother for trying to poison him, and has detached himself from life in many ways. He is homeless in broad terms — not rooted in the community, or in a family, until he becomes part of Emaline's world. Later in the story, Angus teaches Emaline how he has learned to deal with his mother's actions, and says I. In a few words, Porter draws a poignant picture of Angus letting go of his trauma, and shows Emaline on her road to finding emotional balance after her injury.

The Bamboo Flute by Australian author Garry Disher is another deceptively simple book. It begins beautifully:

There was once music in our lives, but I can feel it slipping away.

Men are tramping the dusty roads, asking for work, a sandwich, a cup of tea. My father is bitter, my mother is sad. I have no brothers, no sisters, no after-school friends. The days are long. No one has time for music.

That's why I dream it.

I'm dreaming it now.

I'm dreaming a violin note, threading it through the quarrelling cries of the dawn birds outside my window.
(page 1)

Again, in this story Paul, a lonely, dreaming child is in touch with an outsider, a swag man who carries the gift of music with him. I love the sheer poetry of Disher's writing, as he contrasts Paul's deep yearning for music with the hardships of the Depression in Australia.

Paul leaves home to find his gift of making music, and in bringing it home to his parents, invites joy back into their lives.

Without giving away the story to people who have not read it, I want to say that the power of music to unlock creativity is delicately explored in this little classic.

The two previous books centre on children who feel isolated, but connect with outsiders who empower them. The third one, Boy O'Boy by Brian Doyle, a Canadian writer who was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen award, is quite different. Doyle skilfully builds up a picture of Martin, a boy who trusts an adult, only to be betrayed. Though Martin leads a harum scarum life playing on the streets of Ottawa during the 1940s, he is still at heart an innocent, who thinks Mr. George means no ill to the boys in the choir.

Doyle deftly sketches in the details of a predator who grooms his victims for sexual abuse, all the while masquerading as a benevolent organist. After Martin is molested, his shame is overwhelming, and he is bewildered. He returns home to "the house where I don't want to live" and the staccato last words in the chapter echo his anguish: "Please, somebody. Take care of me. Love me." (page 108)

Later Martin gains power and is able to join forces with his friend, Billy Batson, who was also a victim, to wreak fitting revenge on Mr. George, humiliating him in public at an organ recital. Ultimately, the resolution of the story comes when Martin is able to tell Buz Sawyer, the returning soldier, of the attacks inflicted by Mr. George, and Buz, as a strong paternal figure can confront the molester. Martin, no longer an innocent, is protected at last from further harm. This is one of Brian Doyle's finest novels. Never veering into sentimentality, Doyle's writing is muscular, with sharply defined images throughout the entire work.

All three writers, Pamela Porter, Garry Disher, and Brian Doyle have created novels which tackle difficult issues with courage, and grace. They have not shied away from controversy, but simply have told stories which challenge the reader, whether child, teen or adult to think, and try to make sense of the world. These writers have offered the reader time to consider the universe, and see it clearly. Armed with powerful stories, each reader can live life to the fullest.

I leave you with a quotation which Michael Bedard, a Canadian writer has hanging in his study: "Give me the heart of a child, and the awesome courage to live it out." May the Looking Glass encourage readers and writers to explore fearlessly for many more years to come.

Works discussed

Disher, Garry The Bamboo Flute Ticknor & Fields, New York, 1993.
Doyle, Brian Boy O'Boy Groundwood, Toronto, 2003.
Porter, Pamela The Crazy Man Groundwood, Toronto, 2005.

Editor's note:
After a search by several people, the author of the quote about the "heart of a child" was not found. Any help to properly acknowledge the person would be greatly appreciated. The words were too key to Kathleen's thoughts to be deleted.


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"The Heart of a Child"
© Kathleen Bailey, 2007.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680