________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 16 . . . . April 4, 2008


Beyond Window-Dressing? Canadian Children's Fantasy at the Millennium.

K. V. Johansen.
Sackville, NB: Sybertooth, 2007.
147 pp., pbk., $19.95.
ISBN 978-0-9688024-5-8.

Subject Headings:
Fantasy fiction, Canadian (English)-History and criticism.
Children's literature, Canadian (English)-History and criticism.


Review by Gail de Vos.

*** /4


Canadian-published fantasy, compared with the best of contemporary fantasy published both for children and teens in Britain and the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (Pratchett, Jones, Alexander, Nix, Jacques, Gaiman.), often seems simple. Worlds tend to be thinner. Plots follow one storyline, not several. Longer storylines do not arch over and weave through the single-volume plots of multi-volume series. Both language and ideas are less complex. In particular, books for children (as opposed to teens) can feel reined in, hobbled, and the result is that they seem thin. Fantasy for teens shows greater improvement in quality than fantasy for children; this is at least partly due to the fact that books for younger readers, more constrained in length and often in vocabulary, are a more difficult medium in which to produce good fantasy, which requires the development of the unfamiliar and complex. Thus, perhaps, the reliance upon stock plots and worlds. However, it is perfectly possible to write rich fantasy for children. (p. 126). 

By the emphasis on purchasing only "useful" books, that is, ones that will not be "too difficult" for the ever-decreasing literacy of the "average reader" and which will preferably be suitable for the "emergent" or struggling reader to whom books are heavy labour rather than pleasure and excitement, and on purchasing books which have an obvious purpose and curricular application, the education system contributes significantly to the tendency of many publishers to seek children's books that are primarily utilitarian and "average" in all senses. Fiction for the school library is still, by and large, judged not by its literary merits, its value as story and good prose, but by its Canadian-ness and its didactic value. (p. 127)


Johansen begins her exploration of Canadian children's fantasy by declaring that the Canadian publishing world was not interested in the genre until the overwhelming success of Harry Potter. "At a time when British and American publishers were rushing their fantasy backlists out in new covers and reissuing all of the out-of-print fantasy they could find from about 1960 onwards (to the great joy of those attempting to find beloved library books of their childhood), Canadian publishers finally stopped telling authors, "Fantasy doesn't sell; children don't read fantasy," and began publishing it." 

     She explores and defines the various subsets of fantasy and compares Canadian examples of these subsets with successful British and American counterparts. There seems very little acknowledgment regarding the Australian publishing industry in regards to this genre, but she, however, refers several times to Australian Garth Nix as one of her prime examples of successful non-Canadian fantasy writers for children. The chapters regarding the subsets of fantasy (time-travel, magic in the primary world, speculative fantasy, re-imaginings of older tales, historical fantasy, animal fantasy, dual-world fantasy, and secondary and alternate world fantasy) are of most value when Johansen is defining these types of fantasy. The discussions on the individual book titles, while of interest, are, unfortunately, of less significance as many of these titles are either no longer available or even recognized by young readers as book titles vanish so quickly with the disappearing backlists of most Canadian publishers.

     For me, Johansen's concluding chapter is by far the most worthy aspect of the book. She returns to her original question behind her research and this book of Canadian children's fantasy moving beyond window dressing, but in answering her own question, Johansen prevaricates. It depends, she contends, on the type of fantasy. Time-travel fantasy is "still window-dressing tacked on, sugar for the medicine, to make historical fiction ‘easy' and ‘accessible' to the modern child, assumed to be unable to make an imaginative leap into the past without a contemporary guide, or else it is a means for the protagonist, usually an unhappy one, to come to appreciate family history and reconcile him-or herself, with the problems of everyday life." (p. 128) She has higher praise for fantasy set in the primary world which can be badly handled "because of the ‘fantasy doesn't have to make sense' attitude" of many writers (and publishers?) but is basically a strong and growing element in Canadian fantasy writing. She is equally dismissive and commending in regards to the other subgenres of fantasy in her research. She concludes that Canada still has a long way to go to be regarded internationally as possessed of a national literature producing excellent children's fantasy, but the potential exists for an author capable of having the impact on the genre of a Diana Wynne Jones, a Susan Cooper or a Lloyd Alexander, a Terry Pratchett or a Garth Nix, to be published in Canada. (p. 129)

     Johansen provides an honest, if not a bit biased at times, look at the world of Canadian fantasy in the early part of this century as well as an ardent denunciation of the Canadian school system's purchasing policy of materials for the school libraries. It is easy to recognize her passion for well written children's fantasy and her fervent hope that more of these will originate in Canada in the near future.


Gail de Vos teaches at the School of Library and Information Studies for the University of Alberta and is the author of six books on storytelling and folklore.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.