Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Picturing Canada

Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman. Picturing Canada: a history of Canadian children's illustrated books and publishing. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 2010. ISBN 9780802085405.

Reviewer: David Beagley

Critical surveys of national literatures run several clear risks. Clearly defining the material for consideration by national boundaries may be felt to be of relevance only to people within those same boundaries ("Who reads Australian/New Zealand/Canadian books but the locals?"). Worse could be that this national defining actually opens the door for all the stereotypes and cliches held by people outside those boundaries. ("Australian/New Zealand/Canadian books! Won't they all be riding kangaroos/kiwis/moose?"). Then there is always the superficial expectation of a hagiographic promotion of the particular national 'brand', ignoring any issues of quality ("Buy Australian/New Zealand/Canadian books, and help the balance of payments!!").

Edwards' and Saltman's Picturing Canada is none of these. It is a thoughtful, well-researched analysis, not only of the texts, artists and writers of a century and more of Canadian Anglophone children's picture books, but also of the social pressures and issues that have contributed to, and militated against, the development of a distinct Canadian children's literature.

While its subject matter may be Canadian titles and experience, the relevance is far wider. The social pressures and issues around identity and independence could easily be any 'subaltern' literature or society, such as Australia, or New Zealand, particularly in relation to the role of British and American companies and market forces, or non-Anglophone societies like Switzerland or Austria in relation to Germany. Publishing issues such as limited print runs or the cost of colour, political moves like attempts at government support, social factors of cultural cringe in the face of the "big neighbours", or the role of independent publishers and bookstores, librarians, booksellers, teachers, and enthusiasts in trying to promote local literature, are all familiar to these smaller markets. And, of course, the ongoing battle to have children's and young adult literature recognized as an area for serious and rigorous academic study (have we won that one yet?) is familiar to everyone in the field.

Picturing Canada addresses all of these openly and honestly, identifying successes and achievements, as well as failures and disappointments. It achieves a very effective balance between a critical analysis of specific texts and their creators, and a social study of the eras and factors that produced them. It has a very strong base in interviews with those directly involved in Canadian children's literature over the last 50 years; quotes from luminaries like Sheila Egoff, Perry Nodelman, Mavis Reimers, and Jeffrey Canton pepper the pages in support of the authors' authoritative commentary. Over 130 interviews are listed in an extensive bibliography that runs to more than 60 pages. Another 60 pages of notes, and a detailed index provide the serious scholar with plenty to browse.

However, the text is not a dry academic argument. It is a lively discussion that raises many contentious details like the appropriation of indigenous stories as entertainment for a European readership (colonial exploitation, or building a postcolonial awareness?), or the determination of 'quality' through adult choices (selection by publishers, stocking by bookstores, collection development by librarians, and so on) or whether children's choice awards and popularity should be the measures of worth. The one obvious point of contention would be its decision to limit the discussion to Anglophone literature in Canada, given the strength of the Anglo/Franco debates - as the authors explain, given the scope of the study and the distinction of the markets, it would not do justice to either group to lump them together. However, they add that appreciation of the Francophone market would certainly benefit from this depth of study.

Individual texts receive extensive commentary over both their textual and visual aspects, from the earliest accounts for children of Canada as a place in 1825, through to the current quandaries of e-books and online literacies. For the Canadian reader there will be plenty of familiar faces; for the non-Canadian, there will be so many 'new' titles to follow up. The structure is largely chronological, particularly in relation to the publishing and political issues, but the literary analyses cross-reference a little more broadly. Full colour plates and black and white text illustrations provide great support along with the notes, bibliography and illustrations.

Picturing Canada has been nominated for the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences award for Best Book in the Humanities - 2011. It is clear to see why. Quite simply, this is an essential text for both academic and general readerships in children's literature. It is not just a book on Canada; it has so much to say about the worlds of publishing, of children, and of how nations see themselves.


David Beagley

Volume 15, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, May/June 2011

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