The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 3, No 3 (1999)

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LG Lore


Great Canadian Books of the Century.

by Jeffrey Canton


Jeffrey Canton is the Children's Book Review Editor at Books in Canada and a freelance writer and reviewer whose work appears in newspapers and magazines across Canada.


Staff at Vancouver Public Library were inspired by The New York Public Library's Books of the Century, edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf (Oxford University Press, 1996) to create their own list of great Canadian books. Great Canadian Books of the Century: Vancouver Public Library books that shaped a nation is an eclectic mix of 133 books, one for each year from 1867 to 2000. "An unconventional and fascinating collation", notes Bill Richardson in his foreword. "It's a safe bet," he adds, "that this is the only list of its kind to include The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch cheek by jowl with Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

Great Canadian Books includes a fair selection of children's books. Twenty-two titles including picture books, young adult novels, fiction for younger readers and a lone nonfiction book made it on to the list. And who is ever truly satisfied by a great books list? VPL Director Madeleine Aalto notes in an afterword that one of her kidlit favourites, Ian Wallace's Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance, didn't make it. But what is most interesting is what did. Divided thematically into five groupings, it's also fascinating to see which children's books are placed where.

Each book features an erudite annotation that is at once critical and informative and makes for great reading. On occasion, readers are pointed to works by authors and illustrators not on the list, such as Sarah Ellis's 1991 Governor General's Award- winning Pick-Up Sticks and Paul Yee's 1996 GG winner, Ghost Train. The guide selects The Keeper of the Isis Light (1980), the first volume of Monica Hughes' Isis trilogy, but also mentions the next two books, Guardian of Isis and The Isis Pedlar.

What's on the list? In "The Land", we find the picture book classic, Mary of Mile 18 (1971), written and illustrated by Ann Blades. Blades is credited with being one of the first children's writers to focus on multicultural experience in a recognizable Canadian landscape: Mary belongs to a close-knit Mennonite family in northern British Columbia. Farley Mowat's Owls in the Family (1961), which was the subject of an earlier Looking Glass Lore column, (vol.1.1) is set in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Mowat animates the prairie landscape for young readers as he relates the story of owls Wol and Weeps. Northern Ontario is superbly conjured up in Tim Wynne-Jones' provocative The Maestro (1995). Burl Crow's encounter with Nathaniel Gow, the maestro of the title, an eccentric pianist, changes his life forever.

"Nation in the Making" contains the list's only nonfiction title. (I'm not including the wonderful anthologies, Sally Go Round the Sun or The Wind Has Wings, as nonfiction.) Bringing together the talents of novelist Janet Lunn, historian Christopher Moore and artist Alan Daniel, The Story of Canada (1992) is a remarkable achievement. It's a delight to read, with in-depth glimpses into great moments in our history and chock-full of the most wonderful anecdotes. (Lunn's research led her to the story of Charlotte Haines and her most recent picture book, Charlotte.) Tales of Gold Mountain: Stories of the Chinese in the New World by Paul Yee, with evocative paintings by Simon Ng (1989), provides extraordinary insight into the history of the Chinese in Canada, and especially their role in the development of the railways. These stories are simply breathtaking.

Moving on to "Portraits of a People", we find IBBY-Canada's most recent author nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, Roch Carrier, with his ebullient autobiographical story, The Hockey Sweater (1984). It's the winter of 1946 in the small town in rural Quebec where Carrier grew up. When his old hockey sweater wears out, young Roch waits with anticipation for its mail-order replacement but is appalled to receive a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater instead of the Montreal Canadiens sweater he expects. This book, beautifully illustrated by Sheldon Cohen, reaches across borders to kids everywhere with its warmth and humour. Baseball Bats for Christmas by Michael Kusugak and illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka (1990) is also based on a true story. Kusugak, one of the pre-eminent Inuit writers for children, whisks us back to Repulse Bay in the Northwest Territories to the winter that the local kids used Christmas trees to make baseball bats! Vladyana Krykorka's stunning watercolour illustrations evoke the cold and the beauty of the northern landscape.

Brian Doyle's award-winning novel Up to Low (1982), like so much of his fiction, touches readers young and old. (Doyle, too, was the subject of another column - vol. 3.2) Up to Low is certainly one of Doyle's most poignant novels; as the annotation notes, "Rarely is a story of healing and redemption found within the framework of a zany tall tale." Kevin Major's moving first novel, Hold Fast (1978) is praised especially for his ability to write in a "strong, authentic Newfoundland voice." This groundbreaking YA novel focuses on a teenager's struggle to find his own place in the world after the tragic death of his parents in an car accident. Kit Pearson's The Guests of War Trilogy: The Sky is Falling (1989), Looking At the Moon (1991) and The Lights Go On Again (1993) is lauded for emotional intensity as Pearson recreates Canada during World War II. Readers are caught up in the lives of Norah and Gavin, "war guests" from England whose lives are changed forever by the Toronto family that takes them for the duration of the war.

"New Perspectives" looks at Canadian books that lead readers on journeys of exploration. Some of the journeys are interior ones, like Sarah Ellis' The Baby Project (1986), published in the United States as A Family Project. The excitement and anticipation of a new baby in the Robertson family change to disbelief when the infant succumbs to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It's a remarkable fiction - funny, moving and intelligently written. Monica Hughes leads readers on imaginative journeys of a more fantastic nature. The Keeper of the Isis Light (1980) is just one of Hughes' many fabulous science fiction and fantasy novels to challenge and enthrall young readers. From Anna by Jean Little (1972) depicts a very different kind of journey. It's an historical and partly autobiographical novel, set in the years just before the onset of World War II. It's also a story about coping with change as a German family emigrates to a new life in Canada. And it's about Anna, who discovers that not only is she different, but being different is special too. Being different is also the note that Robert Munsch sounds in his delightful The Paper Bag Princess, illustrated by Michael Martchenko (1980). Munsch turns the traditional fairy tale on its head as he introduces us to the feisty Princess Elizabeth and her insipid prince, Ronald. It's Elizabeth who goes out to fight the dragon and when she's not satisfied with her prince, she's quite content to leave him behind. This was the first of Munsch and Martchenko's many collaborations.

Great Canadian Books finishes with "Some Treasures" which include Sheila Burnford's memorable tale, The Incredible Journey (1960), which follows a young Labrador retriever, an old pitbull terrier and a Siamese cat on a journey across 250 miles of the Canadian shield. The Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada compiled by Mary Alice Downie and Barbara Robertson, illustrated by Elizabeth Cleaver (1968; revised as The New Wind Has Wings, 1984) and Sally Go Round the Sun: 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children compiled by Edith Fowke with musical arrangements by Kenneth Macmillan and illustrations by Carlos Marchiori (1969) are remarkable anthologies that changed the lives of Canadian children. So did Dennis Lee's groundbreaking Alligator Pie, illustrated by Frank Newfeld (1974). Young readers have been delighted since its publication by Lee's irrepressible good humour in this "fun-filled, jumbled collage that parallels the Canadian mosaic from a child's point of view." More than two decades later, kids still want some alligator pie! Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang by Mordecai Richler, illustrated by Fritz Wegner (1975) is also a perennial favourite. Kid power rules as Jacob is pitted against Louis Loser, Mistress Fowl, Master Flesh and the infamous Hooded Fang himself. What started as a bedtime story for Richler's youngest son will soon reach millions of kids as a major motion picture.

And what would a great Canadian booklist be without at least one book by the venerable L.M. Montgomery? Anne of Green Gables (1908) still weaves a certain magic over young Canadian readers as they follow the adventures of the redheaded heroine through the fictional town of Avonlea.

Great Canadian Books is a good place to start your reading for the next millenium. But it's only a start. Looking Glass Lore would like to compile a list of your Canadian favourites. Send us your picks, and we'll post them at the end of the next column in the April 2000 issue!


Bibliographic Information:

Blades, Ann. Mary of Mile 18. Illus. by the author. Montreal: Tundra Books, 1971. ISBN 0887760155 hc; 0887760597 pb.

Burnford, Sheila. The Incredible Journey. Illus. by Carl Burger. [London]: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961, c1960. ISBN 0340010916.

Carrier, Roch. The Hockey Sweater. Illus. by Sheldon Cohen. Trans. from the French by Sheila Fischman. Montreal: Tundra, 1984. ISBN 0887761690.

Doyle, Brian. Up to Low. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1982. ISBN 0888990170.

Ellis, Sarah. The Baby Project. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1986. ISBN 0888990472. Published in the United States as: A Family Project. New York: McElderry, 1988, c1986. ISBN 0689504446.

Ellis, Sarah. Pick-up Sticks. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1991. ISBN 0888991460.

Great Canadian Books of the Century: Vancouver Public Library books that shaped a nation. Foreword by Bill Richardson. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999. ISBN 1550547364.

Hughes, Monica. The Keeper of the Isis Light. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980. ISBN 024110405X.

Kusugak, Michael. Baseball Bats for Christmas. Illus. by Vladyana Krykorka. Toronto: Annick, 1990. ISBN 1550371452 hc; 1550371444 pb.

Lee, Dennis. Alligator Pie. Illus. by Frank Newfeld. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974. ISBN 0770511937; 0771595913; 0771595662 pb.

Little, Jean. From Anna. Illus. by Joan Sandin. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. ISBN 0060239115.

Lunn, Janet. Charlotte. Illus. by Brian Deines. Toronto: Tundra, 1998. ISBN 0887763839.

Lunn, Janet and Christopher Moore. The Story of Canada. Illus. by Alan Daniel. Toronto: Lester/Key Porter, 1992. ISBN 1895555329 hc; 1895555884 pb.

Major, Kevin. Hold Fast. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1978. ISBN 0772011753.

Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. Illus. by M.A. and W.A.J. Claus. Boston: L.C. Page and Company, 1908. ISBN 0553028170.

Mowat, Farley. Owls in the Family. Illus. by Robert Frankenberg. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961. ISBN 0771066473.

Munsch, Robert. The Paper Bag Princess. Illus. by Michael Martchenko. Toronto: Annick, 1980. ISBN 0920236820.

The New Wind Has Wings. Compiled by Mary Alice Downie and Barbara Robertson. Illus. by Elizabeth Cleaver. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1984. ISBN 0195404319.

Pearson, Kit. The Guests of War Trilogy: The Sky is Falling; Looking at the Moon; The Lights Go On Again. Toronto: Puffin, 1998. ISBN 0140388419.

Richler, Mordecai. Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. Illus. by Fritz Wegner. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975. ISBN 0771074824.

Sally Go Round the Sun: 300 songs, rhymes and games of Canadian children. [Collected and edited] by Edith Fowke. Musical arrangements by Keith MacMillan. Illus. by Carlos Marchiori. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969. No ISBN.

The Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada. Compiled by Mary Alice Downie and Barbara Robertson. Illus. by Elizabeth Cleaver. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1968. ISBN 0195402871.

Wynne-Jones, Tim. The Maestro. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1995. ISBN 0888992424.

Yee, Paul. Ghost Train. Illus. by Harvey Chan. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1996. ISBN 0888992572.

Yee, Paul. Tales from Gold Mountain: Stories of the Chinese in the New World. Illus. by Simon Ng. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1989. ISBN 0888990987.

 

Jeffrey Canton


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"Great Canadian Books of the century"
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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