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Cover of issue #223

Current Issue: #223 Agency & Affect (Winter 2014)

Canadian Literature's Issue 223 (Winter 2014), Agency & Affect, is now available. The issue features articles by Ranbir K. Banwait, Paul Huebener, Lisa Marchi, Veronica Austen, and Andrea Beverley, as well as an interview with Laurence Hill by Kerry Lappin-Fortin, along with new Canadian poetry and book reviews.

Recent Canadian Children's Books: The Sublime and the Ridiculous

  • Eugenie Fernandes (Author)
    Baby Dreams. Stoddart Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Margiret Ruurs (Author) and Barbara Spurll (Author)
    Emma and the Coyote. Stoddart Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Paul Morin (Author) and Maxine Trottier (Author)
    Flags. Stoddart Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Allen Morgan (Author) and Michael Martchenko (Author)
    Matthew and the Midnight Hospital. Stoddart Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Pamela Breeze Currie (Author) and Janice MacDonald (Author)
    The Ghouls' Night Out. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Vivian Bevis (Author) and W. H. New (Author)
    Vanilla Gorilla. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hodgson

"Sublime" and "ridiculous" of course have distinctive values in the lexicon of children’s books, and this sample covers the whole definitional range. In this gathering of picture books, poetry, and chapter books by Canadian authors (and mostly Canadian illustrators), the interplay of fear and delight is admirably integrated both in those texts which are explicitly Canadian and in those with less localized forms of childhood life. A similar diversity appears in L.M. Montgomery with her loving depictions of the Maritimes and Robert Munsch with his generalized stories of childhood, so this new crop of books for younger readers is in good company.

First the picture-books, all published by Stoddart (in the series "Stoddart Kids"). Baby Dreams is clearly aimed at the youngest audience, a meditation on the dream-life of babies, with swirling illustrations of babies, mothers, and animals dancing and playing. The text lingers somewhere between prose and verse: "A lullaby of moonlight/ sailing on the sea/ rocks you to sleep, /Good night, Baby." Sentence-fragments, ellipses, and present participles contribute to the air of reverie, though I suspect most parents reading the book would find this style irritating. And here of course is one of the difficulties of writing books for very young children: one really must have a poet’s sense of language (as in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are) to give apparently simple texts enough complexity to keep parents from wanting to hurl (things) when the book is requested again—and again—and again. Baby Dreams’ illustrations ofthat ubiquitous convention of children’s literature, the anthropomorphic animal, also emphasize the sweet over the real or the comical. This strategy tends to collapse into the bizarre (a yellow rainbow paved with mother’s mouths), but the comforting circles which unify the text and images may have more resonance for babies than the average adult can detect.

Other Stoddart picture-books blend animals and fantasy with more success, partly through artful combinations of the fantastical, the fearful, and the comic. Emma and the Coyote, by Margaret Ruurs with illustrations by Barbara Spurll, is the second Emma story. Emma is a chicken of distinctive character, a beguiling mix of bravado, activism, ingenuity, and cowardice, who here does battle with a persistent coyote. The narrative of Emma’s adventures has great story-telling rhythm, punctuated by Emma’s "tok-tok-TOK" and her refusal to fly at the sight of danger. Spurll’s comically expressive, cartoon-like illustrations add energy and character to the chicken, and the anthropomorphic qualities of Emma’s world are charmingly frank.

Likewise, Matthew and the Midnight Hospital uses humour to address childhood anxieties. In this installment in the lively series written by Allen Morgan and illustrated by Michael Martchenko (Munsch’s chief illustrator), Matthew encounters his fears of injury and death ... and doctors ... in a wild midnight dream-ride to the hospital with a wounded squirrel. This Matthew tale has a slightly bigger role for the mother, which in some ways takes away from Matthew’s ownership of his fantasy life; the various lunatic characters from the other stories also have a somewhat less explicit presence. But the comic craziness of Matthew’s therapeutic dreams is just as delightful here as in the other stories, and the imaginative misuse of medical implements in the midnight hospital (particularly in Martchenko’s illustrations) is a gift to every child who’s had to be there.

The last in this group of picture-books from Stoddart is of a different order. Flags, by Maxine Trottier, illustrated by Paul Morin, tells the story of a young girl visiting Vancouver during World War II. Her Japanese-Canadian neighbour and friend, Mr. Hiroshi, is forced to leave his house and his beloved garden full of irises, the "flags" of the title, and the narrator experiences first-hand both his loss and her own. The spare, subtle text is delicately and attentively constructed, and its expressive quietness ("their faces [were] stiff with sadness") is entirely fitting for the characters it strives to honour. Morin’s luminous illustrations convey the same reflective, simple mood as the text. This is a thoughtful treatment of the difficult subject of racism and injustice; like other of Trottier’s stories, Flags takes a small strand of a bigger issue and frames it through a child’s eyes with poignant beauty. Even the subtle ironies of the title reflect Trottier’s capacity to mediate between adult and childlike versions of meaning. This is certainly the best of the Stoddart books and the one most explicitly Canadian in its themes and sense of place.

From Ronsdale Press, William New’s Vanilla Gorilla is, like Flags, very deliberately Canadian, as one might expect from New, a well-known scholar of Canadian literature. New’s first children’s book is a collection of verses, many of which he wrote for his own children, which locate themselves squarely on the Canadian map without pomposity and with a great deal of appropriate silliness:

My narwhal is a nincompoop
He’s nosy and he nags
He wears a neon necklace
And he punctures paper bags
He tries to swim to Pangnirtung
Every New Year’s Day
But ends up down in Newfoundland
Instead of Baffin Bay.

With their lively rhythms and energetic play language, many poems are reminiscent of the best comic children’s verse, from Silverstein to Nash. The mix of metrical patterns, from haikus to the high-rolling dactyls of "Mackerel, Mockery, Pickerel, Pike," makes this a nice introduction to prosodie diversity as well. The poems have a perceptive sense of children’s interests, with subjects like being caught out in your underwear, the hazards of parental ignorance, and the pleasures of travelling in your imagination. Vivian Bevis’s comic watercolours capture the antic disposition of many of the poems, while their softness also suits the quieter and more meditative works ("where linnets once sang long"). My own focus group, aged 2 and 4, found this a highly satisfactory collection, and several poems have already been committed to memory. There are few higher compliments.

The second Ronsdale offering, Janice MacDonald’s short chapter-book The Ghouls’ Night Out, is equally well-crafted, a story about three ghouls who have their own cultural conflict with Halloween. The unexpected inversions (Annalise the witch who needs her ugly-sleep; Ernie the ghost who when distracted bumps into walls instead of going through them .. .) give the story real flair. The ghouls’ struggles to adapt to another culture also creatively reinvent childhood’s many encounters with alienation. And when Annalise, Ernie and Milton decide to "get involved," the jingoistic side of civic politics takes a few hits as well: a story energized by its own playful subversiveness.

As good children’s reading should do, many of these Canadian works include both the ridiculous and the sublime—to suit children’s fascination with both. These texts cover a wide range of issues and experiences, and many don’t feel the need to be explicitly "Canadian" in imagery or content, which is of course all the better. But it is certainly true that Flags and Vanilla Gorilla, which do speak to the diverse historical and cultural experiences of Canadians, have a specificity which can only enrich a child’s capacity to contain multitudes.

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MLA: Hodgson, Elizabeth. Recent Canadian Children's Books: The Sublime and the Ridiculous. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 148 - 150)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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