Half a logo
Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

(Re)presenting Cultures

  • Leo Yerxa (Author)
    Ancient Thunder. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Antonio Ramá­rez (Author) and Elisa Amado (Translator)
    Napi Goes to the Mountain. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Mandana Sadat (Illustrator), Elisa Amado (Translator), and Jorge Lujàn (Author)
    Tarde de invierno/Winter Afternoon. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Suzanne James

A close interweaving of visual and textual elements, a potentially broad range of audience—toddlers through beginning readers, and the parents, teachers and other adults who purchase the texts—as well as a significant social role, are dominant generic characteristics of picture books. The socialization function of such texts is particularly relevant in the context of works which strive to represent non-European cultures for a youthful Canadian audience.

Leo Yerxa’s Ancient Thunder, a celebration of First Nations culture and the wild prairie horses which fascinated him as a child, received the 2006* Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature (Illustration). Using an original technique of painting on hand-made watercolor paper treated to appear like leather, and integrating traditional Native clothing designs, Yerxa has created fifteen evocative illustrations. From the cover onward, a sense of movement is conveyed by the often overlapping images of galloping horses and reinforced by Yerxa’s sparse poetic text. Suitable for a wide age range, the text and illustrations are open to a breadth of interpretations. More a poem of praise than a story, the work opens with the evocative line, “To hooves of ancient thunder” and closes with “On hooves of ancient thunder.” While the poetry and images draw a reader onward, conversely, Yerxa’s illustrations beg one to slow down and savour the fine-details and idiosyncrasies of each painting.

Napí Goes to the Mountain, which takes us into the world of rural Mexico and the culture of the Mazatec people, is another visual delight. Aimed at an older pre-school audience, this collaboration of the husband-wife/author-illustrator team of Antonio Ramírez and Domi has been translated from the Spanish by Elisa Amado into a smoothly evocative English punctuated with a few words of Mazatec.

The dedications which open the text encapsulate two significant undercurrents: a plea for the rights of the dispossessed poor (“To the boys and girls, children of landless farmers, the victims of capitalist greed”) and a nostalgia for the traditional world of the Mazatec (“To Paulino, my father, and Carenia, my mother, with whom I lived through the adventure of the founding of Nuevo Ixcatlán, my village, over half a century ago”).

Written in the first person from the perspective of Napí, a young Mazatec girl, this mystical quest narrative traces the narrator’s search for her father who has mysteriously disappeared and may be in some danger (she overhears one of his friends declare “someone told me that he had seen some men hit him, then take him away”). Accompanied by her younger brother, Niclé, the determined Napí plays truant and sets off upriver to find her father. The children’s adventure rapidly becomes magical as their raft is piloted by turtles and they find themselves miraculously transformed into deer with “little fawn antlers.” In a “fresh and new and beautiful” Edenic environment where even coral snakes are kind, Napí and Niclé are assisted by a series of talking animals, the last of whom directs them home with the prophetic message: “The family is finally together again.”

An engaging narrator, Napí closes the book with an admission of her truancy and the declaration, “Because even though I love to dream, I never tell lies.” While her father’s reappearance remains unaccounted for, and the political subtext remains undeveloped, we are drawn into the warmth of the family re. Equally compelling are Domi’s unique one-dimensional water-colour illustrations. In a direct and deceptively simple style reminiscent of traditional folk art, she utilizes vibrant colours to accentuate aspects of each painting against a background of inviting earth-tones.

By comparison, Tarde de invierno/Winter Afternoon is a quieter and more emotive text which evokes the loving bond between a mother and child. In this bilingual Spanish/English book for very young children, Mandana Sadat’s illustrations and Jorge Luján’s minimalist text (also translated by Elisa Amado) explore the feelings of a child as she scratches a picture in the frost on a windowpane, impatiently watching for her mother’s return. More universal than local, the childlike drawings open with a cityscape of multi-coloured buildings set against a dark hilltop threaded with intersecting paths of vehicle headlights. As the story progresses, the focus narrows to the girl and the windowpane, the colours becoming richer and warmer as the mother and daughter are reunited.

As a bilingual text, Tarde de invierno/Winter Afternoon has the potential to expose non-Spanish speaking children to a foreign language within the familiar context of urban family life. More richly suggestive, Ancient Thunder and Napí Goes to the Mountain speak directly to children of First Nations and Mexican/Spanish ancestry, affirming their heritage, yet they also encourage cross-cultural understanding by presenting aspects of these cultures in the highly accessible format of beautifully designed picture books.

*Note: The print version of this review (CL#194) incorrectly has this date as 1996. We apologize for the error.

Similar reviews

  • Land, Culture, Property by Sophie McCall
    Books reviewed: Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia by Cole Harris and Preserving What is Valued: Museums, Conservation and First Nations by Miriam Clavir
  • Worthy of Serious Study by Judy Brown
    Books reviewed: Growing Up: Childhood in English Canada from the Great War to the Age of Television by Neil Sutherland, Children in English Canadian Society: Framing the Twentieth Century Consensus by Neil Sutherland, and Canadian Children's Books: A Critical Guide to Authors and Illustrators by Raymond Jones and Jon Stott
  • Restoring Carr by Gabriele Helms
    Books reviewed: Klee Wyck by Emily Carr
  • Life at High Latitudes by Sherrill Grace
    Books reviewed: High Latitudes by Farley Mowat, Inuit Journey: The Co-operative Venture in Canada's North by Edith Iglauer, and Thunder on the Tundra: Inuit Quajimajatuqangit of the Bathurst Cariboo by Kitikmeot Elders, Sandra Eyegetok, Naikak Hakongak, and Natasha Thorpe
  • DOLAM by Vincent Bouchard
    Books reviewed: Dictionnaire des œuvres littéraires de l’Acadie des Maritimes du XXe siècle by Janine Gallant and Maurice Raymond


MLA: James, Suzanne. (Re)presenting Cultures. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 188 - 189)

***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.

Half a logo Support the CanLit Tuition Award