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Are Children Gaining a Sense of Place from Canadian Historical Picture Books?

Marilynne V. Black & Ronald Jobe

Dr. Ronald Jobe is a professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education in the Faculty of Education at UBC. He is a former president of the International Board on Books for Young People and is the founder of Canada's Children's Literature Roundtables.
Marilynne Black was a teacher librarian for 25 years. Upon retirement she enrolled in the Master of Art in Children's Literature program at UBC. Her graduating thesis was Canadian Historical Picture Books as Purveyors of Canadian History and Identity.

How do Canadian children come to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of Canada and of their Canadian-ness in the books they read? Young people must see themselves reflected in what they read and view so as to develop a sense of identity. Familiar emotions, activities, families, and surroundings are sensed through the depiction of the characters and story settings. To evolve a national identity, youngsters need to develop a sense of place, a feeling of 'This is where I belong'. It is crucial, therefore, that they see their communities, regions and country reflected accurately and authentically in literature. Also, it is equally important for children to gain a sense of their nation's past and the impact of the land on our history.

Canadian children need to be exposed to Canadian stories because "story is a powerful and traditional way to provide a common bond for members of a society and to familiarize children with a culture" (Diakiw 44). It is this identification with one's culture and sense of place that assists in developing citizenship and a national identity (Bainbridge & Thistleton—Martin, Diakiw, Pantaleo). Ungerleider furthers this position, claiming that, "People develop a sense of who they are and of what they are capable of from the institutions, symbols, and myths that reflect their dreams, aspirations, and images" (12). Furthermore, he acknowledges that the understanding of one's own history enhances a sense of belonging in that "... a nation develops memory from the experiences it communicates from generation to generation..." (22).

In order to develop a sense of place, Canadian children should experience Canada's vast and diverse geography as well as the inter-relationship of landscape and weather, even if it is only vicariously through literature. Children must become aware that "a country's terrain and climate are perhaps the primary factors in determining how people live [their culture] - everything from the food they grow and eat, to the houses they build, the clothes they wear." (Park unp.). Moreover, cultural artifacts often reflect the climate and landscape of a particular region as well as its animals and plants. For example, the clothing and housing of each Canadian aboriginal group is distinct and dependent on local materials. These cultural artifacts become symbols of recognition, cultural markers, for that particular group.

It is important for children to identify with their community, region, and country. Children must see references to those places in texts and illustrations. For instance, Vancouver and the Maritimes should be present, as well as Manitoba and Prince Edward Island. They must also see Canadian rivers, lakes, and oceans mentioned or depicted in illustrations as well as natural landmarks such as Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, or Peggy's Cove. In addition, such man-made landmarks as Ottawa's Parliament Buildings, Toronto's CN Tower and Castle Loma, as well as Vancouver's Lions Gate Bridge, are equally as important as icons to Canadian youngsters, as is the White House to Americans, and the Eiffel Tower to the French.

Do Canadian picture books have sufficient specific Canadian cultural markers for young readers? Aldana and Jobe believe that Canadian books have been globalized to such an extent that its children do not get a good sense of their own country, particularly of place names and national symbols. This is a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the pressure from American sales representatives to present more sanitized generic settings. In an attempt to make titles more acceptable to the American market, Canadian books increasingly appear to be lacking "overt Canadian content" (Aldana 677). In a recent study of Canadian realistic picture books listed in Our Choice and published between 1998 and 2000, Jobe found that "only ten out of the 104 realistic picture books (9.6%) provide clear, well-defined images of Canadian culture" (82).

In a 2005 study examining the extent to which the depiction of landscape in Canadian historical pictures books contributes to a distinctive Canadian national sense of place, Black examined titles published over a thirty-two year period (1970 - 2002). The criteria for their inclusion were that they were recommended in the Canadian Children's Book Centre's Our Choice catalogue. 124 books were examined. As the study by Black reveals, regionality is once again a strong indicator of the Canadian psyche. According to Black, "[t]he inclusion of a recognizable place, such as geographic features and landmarks, and the degree to which landscape is portrayed will help give the reader a sense of place and a sense of belonging" (34). All areas of Canada were depicted, with representations of city and rural settings as well as typical weather and native flora and fauna common to each. Despite all parts of Canada being depicted to differing degrees, it is noteworthy to observe the variety of locales evident, and more importantly, to realize that although no region was omitted, they were disproportionately represented. Saskatchewan was the only province not specifically named. While the numbers of historical picture books set in the Atlantic Provinces (16.1%), Ontario (16.1%), and British Columbia (15.3%) were almost equal, the number set of the Prairies (13.7%) were slightly less. Furthermore, despite their rich histories, both Quebec (9.6%) and the North (9.6%) had significantly fewer titles. A finding, perhaps not unexpected when considering historical picture books, is that the majority (84%) of the stories were set in rural areas.

The analysis of the 124 Canadian historically themed picture books found that although regionalism was portrayed adequately in many of the books, it was often not identified as Canadian. In many titles, for example, generic references were made to landscapes, such as prairies and mountains, which coupled with other cultural markers, do convey a Canadian context. But because of the fact that almost 40% of the books use only generic terms rather than specific names, it seems evident that the Americanization of Canadian children's literature goes beyond the deletion of British-Canadian spellings. In addition, actual place and geographic names were often omitted. Thus, children exposed to these books will not be able to determine whether or not the story was set in Canada or a comparable part of the United States. It is also apparent that there is a need for balance between depictions of rural and urban settings in order for children to form a complete picture of a province or territory.

It is surprising that Quebec, with its long, rich history and varied landscape, was featured in only 9.6% of the books. Of the twelve titles, eight depicted rural settings, three were set in Montreal, and five were written by Roch Carrier. However, when reference is made to a Canadian title, which is rich in historical context and filled with Canadian cultural makers, inevitably the title that is promoted is Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater (1979/1984).

The Hockey Sweater is a classic example of a book that successfully portrays a number of overlapping themes, topics, and Canadian cultural markers, as well as conveying a sense of place, time, and national identity. In this book, Carrier portrays himself as a young boy who lives for hockey and worships Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, just as boys later worshipped Wayne Gretsky. When his Montreal Canadiens sweater becomes too small and torn, Carrier's mother writes to Monsieur Eaton for a new one, which would be like writing to Mr. Sears or Mr. J.C. Penny. Unfortunately, when it arrives it is a dreaded blue and white Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. What is even worse, his mother refuses to exchange it and the boy is humiliated in front of his teammates. Sheldon Cohen adds much charm to the story through his lively, detailed folk art illustrations. He portrays a typical wintry French Canadian village complete with obligatory outdoor skating-rink, rustic church, and pedestrians bundled against the cold. French signs bring to life the village's Canada Poste Royale, Magasin General, and La Chaudronniere Café. Interior scenes are filled with classic Canadian references. The hockey dressing room becomes a Montreal Canadien's shrine in which boys, wearing identical Canadiens sweaters, revere walls adorned with newspaper clippings, pictures of hockey players, Stanley Cup winners, and a poster of 'Le Rocket'. In addition, scenes typical of the 1940s, filled with classic Canadian references, are evident in the interior of the diner and the Carrier kitchen.

All regions of British Columbia were represented in 19 books, with the majority of stories set along the coast. Bouchard's The Journal of Etienne Mercier features a young Hudson's Bay Company employee trading with local Haidas on Queen Charlotte Islands in 1853 while Manson's A Dog Came, Too: A True Story is based on the journals of Alexander Mackenzie, who reached the Pacific Ocean in 1793. The Gulf Islands is the setting for three books: Alderson's Ida and the Wool Smugglers; Alderson's A Ride for Martha; and Spalding's Sarah May and the New Red Dress. In Sarah May and the New Red Dress evocative watercolours depict leisurely summer days, wharves, fishing boats, herons, bald eagles, and rocky shorelines of Pender Island. The little church attended by Sarah is a combination of the one at Fulford on Saltspring Island and one on Pender Island. The impact of the impressive majesty of the Fraser Canyon is felt in Lawson's Emma and the Silk Train, in which a young girl living alongside the canyon dreamed of having a pretty silk dress. She unexpectedly gets her wish when a high-speed train, carrying silk to the east, derails and spills its precious cargo into the river. Emma put herself in grave danger by plunging off a rocky shoreline into the raging Fraser River to rescue a long piece of red silk. British Columbia's interior regions are portrayed in Speare's A Candle for Christmas, which sympathetically depicts a native community, and Takashima's A Child in Prison Camp, a story about a Japanese family during their internment.

Despite the fact that the Atlantic Provinces are the smallest in area, they were as well portrayed as Ontario. Surprisingly, Nova Scotia accounted for one-half of the titles, while larger Newfoundland only had four titles, Prince Edward Island had three, and New Brunswick had two. Walsh's Heroes of Isle aux Morts features the rescuing of passengers shipwrecked by a fierce Newfoundland storm: "Anne awoke to a ranging storm, wind rattled the stovepipes and shook the glass in the windows. The great sea rose and fell. Waves rushed up to shore and thundered against the cliffs" (unp.).

The close-knittedness of Newfoundland families and communities is sensed in Butler's The Killick and The Hangashore. Each not only gives visual depictions of tiny outports clinging to the rugged coastline but includes typical local speech patterns. Rugged characters inhabit the rugged terrain in Nova Scotia as viewed in Hull's Wild Cameron Women and Stuchner's The Kugel Valley Klemzer Band.

Wallace's Boy of the Deeps details the rocky landscape of the coal-mining region, and a deep-down view of the shafts and claustrophobic imagery of a cave-in.

Most of the books set on the Prairies did not give specific locales or time frames. Only three specified Manitoba and two Alberta. Carter's Under a Prairie Sky is a fine portrayal of a strong sense of place through panoramic views. The immensity and lonely grandeur of the prairies is emphasized by the distant horizon that contrasts with the smallness of the troop of North West Mounted Police. While searching on horseback for his little brother, a young boy passes train tracks beside grain elevators, willows, coyotes, herons, gophers, and an old broken wagon. He rides "down the coulee, to the valley where Saskatoon berries grow purple and sweet" (unp.). Sunburnt grasses and the harvesting of golden fields of wheat indicate an early autumn season. After finding his brother in a slough catching frogs, the two boys dash home when they sense a change in the weather. A fast approaching summer prairie summer storm is dramatically depicted when jagged lightning cuts the dark purplish blue sky.

McGugan's Josepha beautifully evokes the expansive prairie landscape with its engaging vistas ["A lonely soddy standing on the rise, wee and frail and blackened" (n. pag.)] and counterpoints Josepha's isolation. Trottier's Prairie Willow, Waterton's Pettranella, and Reynolds' The New Land also depicts the loneliness and hardships imposed by the landscape on the pioneer families. Kurelek's A Prairie Boy's Winter was the only historical picture book examined in this study that portrays winter as a time of delight on the prairies. In contrast, winter is usually a time of danger, filled with hardships and endless cold. Reynolds' Belle's Journey, Trottier's Storm at Batoche, and Valgardson's Sarah and the People of Sand River depict children surviving fierce blizzards that suddenly swept cross the open land.

Ontario, with its Canadian Shield region, was represented in 20 books (16.1%). Toronto was one of the two most represented cities. Early images of this city are seen in Nichol's Dippers, Oberman's The White Stone in the Castle Wall, and Bedard's The Clay Ladies. The forest and open farmland of the Niagara Escarpment are featured in two books set in the early 1800's: Crook's Laura Secord's Brave Walk and Trottier's Laura: A Childhood Tale. Each highlights the bravery of a young Canadian heroine. Another title brings the Mennonite farm culture to life: Smucker's Selina and the Shoo-fly Pie. The 12 books about Canada's North included those set in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and the northern portions of some provinces. The three titles about the Klondike gold rush, which began in 1896 and lasted only a few years, give some indication of the emotion and physical conditions that the prospectors endured. Lawson's Klondike Cat, Service's The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee show both the ruggedness of the terrain and the people who searched for gold. On the other hand, Kusugak, the only arctic resident, gives insights into the lives of aboriginal children in the far north in the 1950s in Baseball Bats for Christmas, Northern Lights: The Soccer Trails and Arctic Stories.

In conclusion, it may appear that the portrayal of the Canadian landscape in Canadian historical picture books, particularly regional titles, is sufficient. However, it is "disturbing to observe that there is a lower incidence of cultural markers related to landscape found in books published between 1990 and 2002, than the books published from 1970 to 1989. This indicates that the depiction of Canadian geography has decreased" (Black 103). Equally worrisome is the fact that almost 40% of the books analyzed in Black's study lacked specific geographic content and place names. It is only by increasing the number of cultural markers that Canadian children will be able to better identify their national landscapes and develop a sense of belonging to that landscape. In this way they will gain a sense of place, as part of their unique Canadian-ness.


Works Cited

Aldana, Patsy. "Crossing the Money Boundary." Horn Book Magazine 77 (2001): 675-681.

Bainbridge, Joyce and Judy Thistleton-Martin. "Children's Literature: Vehicle for the Transmission of National Culture and Identity or the Victim of Mass Market Globalization?" Australian Association of Research in Education (2000). 13 Aug. 2002

Black, Marilynne V. Canadian Historical Picture Books as Purveyors of Canadian History and National Identity. M. A. Thesis. U.B.C., 2005.

Diakiw, Jerry. "Children's Literature and Canadian National Identity: A Revisionist Perspective." CCL: Canadian Children's Literature 23.4 (Fall 1997): 36-49.

Jobe, Ronald. "Establishing Cultural Identity through Picturebooks." Art, Narrative and Childhood. Eds. Morag Styles and Eve Bearne. Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham, 2002: 79-85.

Pantaleo, Sylvia. "Exploring Canadian Identity Through Canadian Children's Literature." Reading Online 5.2 (2001) 2 Sep. 2002

Park, Linda Sue. A Single Shard. New York: Clarion, 2001.

Ungerleider, Charles. Failing Our Kids: How We are Ruining Our Public Schools. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2003.

Canadian Historical Picture Books

Alderson, Sue Ann. Ida and the Wool Smugglers. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1987.

Alderson, Sue Ann. A Ride for Martha. Toronto: Groundwood, 1993.

Bedard, Michael. The Clay Ladies. Toronto: Tundra, 1994.

Bouchard, David. Journal of Etienne Mercier: Queen Charlotte Islands, 1853. Victoria: Orca, 1998.

Butler, Geoff. The Hangashore. Montreal: Tundra, 1998.

Butler, Geoff. The Killick: A Newfoundland Story. Montreal: Tundra. 1995.

Carrier, Roch. The Hockey Sweater. Toronto: Tundra, 1979/1984.

Carter, Anne Laurel. Under a Prairie Sky. Victoria: Orca, 2002.

Crook, Connie Brummel. Laura Secord's Brave Walk. Toronto: Second Story, 2000

Hull, Maureen. Wild Cameron Women. Toronto: Stoddart Kids, 2000.

Kurelek, William. A Prairie Boy's Winter. Montreal: Tundra, 1973.

Kusugak, Michael. Arctic Stories. Toronto: Annick, 1998.

Kusugak, Michael A. Baseball Bats for Christmas. Toronto: Annick, 1990.

Kusugak, Michael A. Northern Lights: The Soccer Trails. Toronto: Annick, 1993.

Lawson, Julie. Emma and the Silk Train. Toronto: Kids Can, 1997.

Lawson, Julie. The Klondike Cat. Toronto: Kids Can, 2002.

McGugan, Jim. Josepha: A Prairie Boy's Story. Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College, 1994

Manson, Ainslie. A Dog Came, Too: A True Story. Toronto: Greenwood, 1993.

Nichol, Barbara. Dippers. Toronto: Tundra, 1997.

Oberman, Sheldon. The White Stone in the Castle Wall. Montreal: Tundra, 1995.

Reynolds, Marilynn. Belle's Journey. Victoria: Orca, 1993.

Reynolds, Marilynn. The New Land: A First Year on the Prairie. Victoria: Orca, 1997.

Service, Robert. The Cremation of Sam McGee. Toronto: Kids Can, 1986.

Service, Robert. The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Toronto: Kids Can, 1988.

Smucker, Barbara. Selina and the Shoo-fly Pie. Toronto: Stoddart Kids, 1998.

Spalding, Andrea. Sarah May and the New Red Dress. Victoria: Orca, 1998.

Speare, Jean. A Candle for Christmas. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1986.

Stuchner, Joan Betty. The Kugel Valley Klezmer Band. Markham, ON: North Winds, 1998.

Takashima, Shizuye. A Child in Prison Camp. Montreal: Tundra, 1971.

Trottier, Maxine. Laura: A Childhood Tale of Laura Secord. Markham, ON: North Winds, 2000.

Trottier, Maxine. Prairie Willow. Toronto: Stoddart Kids, 1998.

Trottier, Maxine. Storm at Batoche. Toronto: Stoddart Kids, 2000.

Valgardson, W. D. Sarah and the People of Sand River. Toronto: Groundwood, 1996.

Wallace, Ian. Boy of the Deeps. Toronto: Groundwood, 1999.

Walsh, Alice. Heroes of Isle aux Morts. Toronto: Tundra, 2001.

Waterton, Betty. Pettranella. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1980

Marilynne V. Black & Ronald Jobe

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