Pictures and Profits

  • Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman
    Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children's Illustrated Books and Publishing. University of Toronto Press
Reviewed by Elizabeth Galway

In Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing, Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman present a significant, and sometimes sobering, account of the history of children’s book publishing in Canada from the early years of the nineteenth century to the present day. This work makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of children’s literature production in Canada and addresses some important issues of concern to those engaged in such fields as education, book illustration, children’s publishing, and children’s literature scholarship.

Readers hoping for a comprehensive survey and evaluation of illustrated Canadian children’s books will not find it here. Rather than analyzing and exploring specific texts in great depth, Edwards and Saltman focus on examining “the growth and development of Canadian children’s publishing” as a whole. The study is arranged chronologically, beginning with an account of the pre-Confederation period. Throughout, there is a focus on the relationship between children’s books and Canadian cultural identity. Edwards and Saltman argue that illustrated books are worthy of special study as “the visual images in children’s books can do the ideological work of extending hegemonic discourses within a society about collective identity, memory, and normative social practices.” Through considering the various developments in children’s book illustration in Canada over the past century and a half, this work offers an interesting study of how changing visual images reflect ongoing shifts in the conception of Canadian identity.

The opening chapters of this work contain a succinct but helpful overview of the successes and failures of early illustrated Canadian texts that reveals the difficulties faced by nineteenth-century Canadian writers and publishers. The book’s main focus, however, is on the important developments that took place within the industry from the 1950s to the present. This includes a revealing account of the history of children’s libraries in Canada and the impacts, both positive and negative, that early children’s librarians had on the creation of a children’s publishing industry in Canada at the beginning of the twentieth century. The authors also consider the importance of changing technologies to the type and quality of illustrations produced for children’s texts. After outlining the relatively brief flowering of the illustrated children’s books industry during the 1980s, the authors turn their attention to the present woes facing those involved in the publishing of such texts in Canada. Edwards and Saltman shed light on just how big an impact the recent shift to market-driven publishing has had on the availability of texts (illustrated or otherwise) for young Canadian readers. They make a compelling argument that Canadians are witnessing a decrease in variety and quality in favour of more homogenous and marketable children’s literature. The authors also provide an eye-opening account of how Canadians are now reaping the negative results of the significant funding cuts to education and school library programs of recent decades, including the large impact this is having on the world of Canadian children’s literature. As the authors note, in Alberta alone there was “a more than eighty per cent reduction in the number of teacher-librarians working at least half-time, from 550 to about 100” between 1980 and 2001. The authors’ account of the many structural challenges now faced by Canadian children’s publishers raises some serious questions about the current health of the children’s book industry in this country.

In spite of the sometimes gloomy picture of the industry that is presented here, Picturing Canada also reveals that there is much to celebrate. While this work does not explore every example of illustrated children’s texts in depth, it nevertheless provides a very valuable discussion of the ways in which Canadian children’s literature “constructs, reflects, and questions particular social realities that articulate wider national and cultural concerns.” The history of Canadian children’s books and publishing that is presented here takes into account the always shifting tensions between culture and commerce, providing a valuable resource for those interested in how children’s texts, from the nineteenth century to the present, reflect changing views of childhood, national identity, and aesthetic taste.

This review “Pictures and Profits” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 156-157.

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