- Jean Little (Author) and Kady MacDonald (Illustrator)
I Gave My Mum a Castle. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jean Little (Author) and June Lawrason (Illustrator)
The Birthday Girl. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sylvia Olsen (Author)
The Girl With a Baby. Sono Nis Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Margaret Steffler
Jean Little’s The Birthday Girl, an Orca Echoes chapter book for beginning readers, and I Gave My Mum a Castle, a poetry collection, are both concerned with the giving and receiving of gifts. Nell Mellis, the birthday girl on a Saskatchewan farm, gratefully and graciously receives a doll, a box of watercolour paints and a dress for her eighth birthday. The more important gifts, however, arrive the following day, which is anything but perfect as Nell’s family members carry on with their daily activities now that the excitement of the birthday is over. These more valuable and complicated gifts, three kittens, enter the story when Nell finally finds Lady Jane Grey, her lost cat. An elaborate tea party with dressed-up sunflowers manages to convince Nell’s mother to keep one kitten for the house, one for the barn, and to give the third one away. The Birthday Girl is written in memory of Jean Little’s grandmother’s cousin, who “really did dress up sunflowers and have a party.” The realism of the story is also reinforced by Lawrason’s black-and-white illustrations, which convey the warmth of the family and the simple but challenging conditions of “old-fashioned” farm-life. The story stresses the love and generosity involved in the giving and receiving of gifts. Young readers in our consumer-driven society will find refreshing relief in the dressed-up sunflowers and new kittens.
In her introduction to I Gave My Mum a Castle, Jean Little explains how and why she became “interested in the art of giving.” The short narrative poems in this collection, when read aloud, sound like prose; on the page they make use of stanza breaks and lines of verse to shape and divide ideas and events. Ranging in tone from the humorous to the poignant, the collection provokes thoughts about what constitutes a gift, while conveying the emotions of the giver as well as the receiver. The conclusions of the poems tend to tie them up too neatly, taking away the opportunity for the reader to make connections. The poem, “I Gave My Mum a Castle,” for example, ends with the mother explaining to Clara that Jim’s intangible gifts are a castle: “‘When you are my age, Clara,’ my mother said / And you long for a castle, / May God give you a son like Jim.’” “The Dish” could have ended with the man behind the counter in the gift shop providing the hurtful and shocking information that “‘She traded it in on a nice bit of Royal Doulton / She has a real eye for precious things.’” But the final stanza directs the reader’s response instead of simply allowing it to take place: “I am forty-three now and my mother is dead. / Yet it still hurts me / That she wanted a Royal Doulton child, / But I was only bone china.” The thematic unity of the collection memorably expands definitions and concepts of gift giving.
Two poems in Little’s collection, “The Bulb” and “Names,” deal with the concept of naming as a gift. The climax of Sylvia Olsen’s The Girl With a Baby also involves the bestowal of a name as a gift. Olsen’s novel for young adults opens with 14-year-old Jane Williams giving birth to her baby, Destiny. Jane, now an exhausted teenaged mother, continues to attend school and participate in the drama club. Her complicated family, labelled “half Indians” on Terrace Avenue, makes her situation more difficult but also provides the context for Jane to persevere. In a traditional naming ceremony in which SENCOTEN, (spelled SECOTEN in the novel), the language of the Saanich people, is used, Aunt Mary gives Destiny the name, Say woo see wa, a name that is passed down by female members of the family and is associated with “the strength and power of the old women.” The atmosphere of the naming ceremony is effectively conveyed through a detailed description of the preparations and the event itself, teaching readers about the culture but avoiding a didactic tone. The Girl With a Baby perhaps seems too idealistic in the way Jane manages to continue her “role” in the drama club along with her new role as mother, but the author’s note at the end of the book assures the reader that Olsen, whose novel was “wholly inspired by the real-life story of my daughter Heather, who gave birth to Yetsa when she was fourteen years old,” has more insight and authority than the reader. The gift of Destiny’s name, Say woo see wa, connects the past with the present and affirms the less tangible gifts that are passed down through the female members of the family.
- Bloodlines, Stories, and Invented Identities by Cheryl Suzack
Books reviewed: Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology by Jeannette C. Armstrong and Lally Grauer and Skins: Contemporary Indigenous Writing by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Josie Douglas
- Poèmes (1975-1984) by Jean-Noël Pontbriand
Books reviewed: Poèmes (1975-1984) by Michel Beaulieu
- Reflective and Surreal by Gregory Betts
Books reviewed: Wanting the Day: Selected Poems by Brian Bartlett, Later in Chicago by Fred Cogswell, and Hey, Crumbing Balcony!: Poems New and Selected by Stuart Ross
- By Our Lack of Ghosts by Daniel Burgoyne
Books reviewed: One Muddy Hand by Earle Birney and Sam Solecki
- Secondary Readers by Adrienne Kertzer
Books reviewed: Children's Literature. Blackwell Guides to Literature by Peter Hunt, Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter by Alison Lurie, and Readers in Wonderland: The Liberating Worlds of Fantasy Fiction from Dorothy to Harry Potter by Deborah O'Keefe
MLA: Steffler, Margaret. Receiving Gifts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory. (pg. 155 - 156)
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