- Lois Burdett (Author)
Hamlet for Kids. Firefly Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gary Clement (Author)
The Great Poochini. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lois Burdett (Author)
The Tempest for Kids. Firefly Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Peter Hunt (Editor)
Understanding Children's Literature: Key Essays from the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. Routledge (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Maureen Hull (Author) and Judith Christine Mills (Illustrator)
Wild Cameron Women. Stoddart Kids (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Anne Blades (Author)
Wolf and Seven Little Kids: Based on a Tale from the Brothers Grimm. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Adrienne Kertzer
Peter Hunt, chief editor of the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, has now republished fourteen essays from that work under the title Understanding Children’s Literature.The bibliographical utility and survey of the strengths and weaknesses of various critical approaches are sure to make this an influential text in the teaching of children’s literature. While scholars who marginalize children’s literature may be bemused by the theoretical ambitions of the essays, Canadian children’s literature scholars who are already familiar with the work of Rod McGillis in his 1996 The Nimble Reader and who regularly apply different critical approaches in their own scholarship and teaching will have a more ambivalent response to Hunt’s collection. For as useful as the text is, whenever we recommend it to our students we will have to ask, but why do you think that there are so few Canadian references in a collection culled from an International Companion Encyclopedia, and what do we really learn about "The World of Children’s Literature Studies" (the title of Hunt’s introductory chapter), or "The Setting of Children’s Literature: History and Culture" (Tony Watkins’s essay), when the only Canadian children’s book cited in the entire book is by Robert Munsch?
Now Hunt does begin by quoting the Canadian McGillis; several of the contributors refer to the scholarship of Linda Hutcheon and Northrop Frye; and two of Hunt’s contributors, Perry Nodelman and Lissa Paul, are Canadian (and their scholarship is cited frequently in the other essays). This is twice the number of American contributors but only half the number of those from Australia/New Zealand. The remaining six contributors are all British (Hunt is responsible for both the introduction and the essay on bibliographical studies). Does this really matter? Aren’t we beyond keeping score of the national identities of scholars and texts?
Why national coverage matters has been discussed by Meena Khorana in her 1999 critique in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly of the International Companion Encyclopedia for its structural marginalization of international children’s literature. The consequences of this structure are even more evident in Understanding Children’s Literature, for while the larger work may contain an essay on Canadian children’s literature, Hunt’s "key essays" do not include any national children’s literature, a structure that inevitably encourages us to conclude that to understand children’s literature, we need not know much, or anything, about any national children’s literatures other than those most frequently cited. For Hunt to acknowledge that "The two most obvious constructions of history are from an Anglocentric viewpoint, and from a male viewpoint" and then to reproduce that construction in his selection does little to address the marginalization.
Judging by Hunt’s collection, with a few rare exceptions, Canadian children’s literature scholars and children’s writers are just not significant. In "From Sex-Role Stereotyping to Subjectivity: Feminist Criticism," Paul cites The Paperbag Princess only as "a dubious exception" to her thesis that most feminist rewritings of the seventies are no longer in print. The only Canadian scholars in her bibliography (other than herself) are Stephen Slemon and Jo-Ann Wallace. If Paul, a Canadian scholar, feels so little compelled to cite many Canadian works to advance her argument, what familiarity with Canadian work can we expect to find in the other essays? Some Canadian research is mentioned in Michael Benton’s essay on reader-response criticism; Hunt in his essay on bibliographical studies praises Judith St. John’s 1975 catalogue of the Osborne Collection, and includes Sheila Egoff and Judith Saltman’s The New Republic of Childhood in his brief international bibliography. Analyzing metafictions and experimental works, Robyn McCallum cites Hutcheon but no Canadian children’s books; similarly in an essay on intertextuality, Christine Wilkie mentions no Canadian books as examples of the new picture books and the new young adult novels (new in that such books break codes and provide sites for intertextual interplay). The unfortunate consequence is not just a reinforcement that Canadian children’s books don’t count, but that such books don’t count because they are not interesting.
In "Essentials: What is Children’s Literature? What is Childhood?" Karin Lesnik-Oberstein does cite the work of Canadians Egoff, Paul, and Michèle Landsberg. Here Canadian critics are part of a larger group, but Lesnik-Oberstein portrays all children’s literature critics as obtuse believers in an essentialized childhood, something she can only demonstrate by ignoring the approaches of critics such as Mitzi Myers. Lesnik-Oberstein asserts that children’s literature critics are universally prescriptive, convinced that children’s literature means books that are good for children, that such critics believe it is their job to identify which books are good for children, and that such critics are incapable of understanding the social complexities of childhood, goodness, or literature. Nodelman’s perceptive observation in his own essay that pleasurable children’s books "teach children how to be child-like," that picture books "are enmeshed in the ideology of the culture that produced them, and the childlikeness they teach is merely what our culture views as natural in children" rises above the simplicity of Lesnik- Oberstein’s argument.
Nodelman asserts that because "the words [...] always tells us that things are not merely as they appear in the pictures, and the pictures always show us that events are not exactly as the words describe them," we need to recognize that " [p]icture books are inherently ironic." A comment that rejects the persistent adult belief that only adults can appreciate irony, Nodelman’s observation and Christine Wilkie’s suggestion that we conceive of children’s literature as "an intertextual sub-genre of adult literature" are both particularly useful in reading five recent Canadian children’s books, all of them in some sense retellings of adult stories, yet markedly different in terms of the readers they construct and the irony that they deploy.
The first, Wolf and the Seven Little Kids, adapts the well-known Grimm Brothers story and makes of it a softly watercoloured and remarkably non-threatening tale. Although the kids disobey their mother and open the locked door, and the wolf finds six of the seven kids and "swallowed them down," Blades’s illustrations remain pretty and peaceful. The greedy goat has swallowed the kids whole; when the mother goat frees the kids with scissors and sews the goat up, Blades makes sure that we see the stitches but no gore. If Nodelman’s view of irony applies, it is in the frequent tension between what the text tells us—the miller is afraid when the wolf threatens to eat him—and the reassuring illustrations. For while the wolf may bare his teeth, the miller in both illustrations looks like any adult calmly speaking to a pet dog. The child viewer constructed by Blades’s adaptation, conceived as one too young to enjoy being frightened, learns that children cannot protect themselves, the luck of the world usually falls on the youngest kid, and clever mothers always outwit evil wolves.
Wild Cameron Women shares with Blades’s adaptation of Grimm the pattern in which a maternal figure outwits a wild animal. Like the protagonist in many other picture books that explore children’s night time fears and locate the fear in the monster in the closet (for example, Mercer Mayer’s There’s a Nightmare in My Closet), Hull’s protagonist, Kate, has "a problem with bears" who come out of her closet at night and wake her up. Kate’s parents, less concerned about the fate of their daughter than about their disturbed sleep, turn for help to the grandmother, Nana Cameron, who arrives with three Cameron tartan nightgowns, and a story about the Wild Cameron Women. Although both gifts serve to help Kate, it is the maternal ancestral tale that is key. For Nana Cameron tells Kate how her ancestors come to Canada, seeking the freedom unavailable in Scotland, a freedom to "speak their own Gaelic language, and wear this Cameron tartan." Kate’s seven-greats namesake has confirmed the nature of Canada as a free space when she terrifies the bear that is threatening her infant by screaming in Gaelic at him and tossing a bucket of icy water in his face. Teaching her granddaughter the same Gaelic phrase, Nana Cameron teaches not only a solution to Kate’s inability to sleep at night, but also a story about Canada in which there are no aboriginal peoples challenging the definition of the new home as empty and free space. And if Kate learns that brave solitary mothers cleverly outwit animals, and women rely on language rather than murderous violence in order to triumph, she also learns an ambiguous lesson about wildness.
For if women must be as "wild" as the animal opponents that they face, Kate must also learn to restrain that wildness. As is typical of many children’s books intended for young readers, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are among them, this is reinforced by the ending. The extent to which Kate is willing to be as "wild" as her maternal ancestor proves comically problematic. When Kate, believing that she must literally imitate the wildness of her heroic ancestor, wants to practice throwing icy buckets, Nana and the parents advise her that such wildness is excessive; she only has to shout in Gaelic and show the bears that she has the bucket. By the end of the week, "all the bears in the world had heard that Kate was a Wild Cameron Woman." In this way, Hull not only acknowledges the difference between literal and symbolic truth, a difference which we imagine distinguishes how children and adults understand stories, Hull also constructs a child reader capable of distinguishing between contemporary civilized space (the bedroom where we don’t throw buckets) and the wild space of the past (a Canada inhabited by immigrants and bears) where we do.
Further evidence that picture books construct a reader who appreciates irony appears in the intertextual parody and word play of The Great Poochini. The end papers depict posters advertising the opera singer, Poochini, previous star of The Dalmation of Faust, Tails of Hoffman, La Nozze di Figarover, and The Barker of Seville. Poochini, the canine hero, is known to his human master, Hersh, as Jack. Clement never draws Jack as Signor Poochini, "the finest canine lyric tenor ever to have graced the opera stage" when Hersh is in the picture. We see Hersh from the dog’s point of view—a hand, a shoulder, never a face. When the dog is drawn listening to records with his master, he appears as the dog in the RCA Victor advertisement, His Master’s Voice. But as soon as Hersh goes out for the night, Poochini transforms into his true opera star self.
The problem is that Hersh, ignorant of his dog’s secret life, has locked all the windows, and Poochini has no key. How will Poochini, who is supposed to debut in Dog Giovanni that very night, get to the Muttropolitan in time? The solution, involving a cat burglar, some strategically used opera music, and melodramatic stage business appropriate to the opera Poochini must perform, saves the day. Poochini performs, "When he reaches his high C, it is said that only dogs can hear him," and he brings the house down with his "famous duet with the beautiful and enchanting diva, Madama Barkoli." Now this is all very clever, but when Poochini and Barkoli sing, "Làci darem la zampa" the child reader’s ability to recognize the extended joke requires that the reader already know the duet,"Làci darem la mano," from Don Giovanni, just as the earlier pictorial reference to His Master’s Voice presumes a familiarity with the advertisement. The child ignorant of opera can recognize the joke when Clement’s words, "The audience is all ears," are given a specifically canine meaning in the illustration. But how does the opera parody work to a reader who knows nothing about opera?
Like many of the books analyzed in Understanding Children’s Literature, The Great Poochini refutes any naive belief in the simplicity of children’s books. If the child reader shares with the canine protagonist a presumed secret life, part ofthat secret is how a child reader responds to parody that presumes prior knowledge of opera. If it is unclear whether a parody like The Great Poochini actually encourages children to value opera, there is no uncertainty about the intent of Lois Burdett’s adaptations of Shakespeare. Both Hamlet for Kids and The Tempest for Kids (sixth and seventh in the very successful Shakespeare Can Be Fun series) take for granted a series of linked assumptions: that Shakespeare is worth reading and performing; that very young children can appreciate Shakespeare; and that this appreciation requires that we surrender adult assumptions regarding the difficulty of Shakespeare. The logic of these assumptions collapses, however, when Burdett rewrites Shakespeare. Why do it, unless adults are actually right regarding Shakespeare’s difficulty?
A reader already familiar with Shakespeare might well prefer his blank verse to Burdett’s rhyming couplets, a response hard to resist when "To be or not to be" becomes
For the meaning of life had become confused.
The world for Hamlet had become a chore,
"To die is to sleep and nothing more."
Yet this preference must be set beside the numerous verbal and artistic responses by real children that Burdett includes in her text. One child writes as Polonius to Ophelia: "I advise you to dump Hamlet." In The Tempest for Kids, a child ends her love letter to Ferdinand, "Your sweetie pie Miranda"; another child paraphrases Ariel appealing to Prospero for his freedom, "I zipped, zapped, zanged all over the ship. [...] So all’s well that ends well."Beside such responses, the questions—but is Shakespeare in rhyming couplets still Shakespeare? And will the children who zip and zap so enthusiastically necessarily learn to enjoy a different Shakespeare when they are older?—seem inappropriate.
Although Lesnik-Oberstein berates children’s literature critics for imagining an essentialized childhood, we are more likely to find such references in the casual words of those outside the professional world of children’s literature. Thus Kenneth Branagh, in his Foreword to Hamlet for Kids, takes for granted the innocence of the child reader, the reader "in the state of blissful ignorance about Shakespeare’s most famous play." To such an imagined child, the play is material to play with, and Branagh emphasizes that fun "is the key to this book." And Nodelman might add that we teach children that having fun is part of being childlike when we give them such books.
Yet even as we rely on such books to reinforce both the cultural significance of "fun" and the central place of Shakespeare in the canon, eventually all such books move from fun to the pedagogy of use. Burdett’s end note to Parents and Educators for "a variety of activities" confirms Geoffrey Williams’s assertion that literacy pedagogy teaches children what the real place of literature is in our culture, by emphasizing activities in which we "use" literature. We tempt children by making Shakespeare "fun"; we have to emphasize the "fun" if we are to fit his plays within the underlying definition of childhood, but even Shakespeare in the end must be useful too: "List examples of parental advice to children. Survey and tally for most frequent advice, and graph the results. Compare your examples with those of Polonius to his son, Laertes."
- Art's Artifice by Christoph Irmscher
Books reviewed: Drawn from Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World by Victoria Dickenson and The Truth of Uncertainty: Beyond Ideology in Science and Literature by Edward Galligan
- La littérature jeunesse by Anne Scott
Books reviewed: La malédiction des opales by Chrystine Brouillet, Le roi qui venait de bout de monde by Sylvain Trudel, and Les 100 livres québécois pour la jeunnesse qu'il faut lire by Édith Madore
- Adventures in Ontario by Richard Scrimger
Books reviewed: Into the Ravine by Richard Scrimger, Death in Kingsport by Richard Scrimger, and When the Bough Breaks by Irene N. Watts
- Other Stories by Claire Wilkshire
Books reviewed: And Other Stories by George Bowering and The One and the Many: English-Canadian Short Story Cycles by Gerald Lynch
- Friendship in Action by Huai-Yang Lim
Books reviewed: Down the Chimney with Googol and Googolplex by Nelly Kazenbroot, A Noodle Up Your Nose by Frieda Wishinksy, Drusilla the Lucky Duck by Errol Broome, and Things Are Looking Up by Dan Bar-el
MLA: Kertzer, Adrienne. Useful Keys. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #173 (Summer 2002), (Crawford, Munro, Watson, Atwood, Duncan). (pg. 145 - 149)
***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.