1986 Notable Canadian Children's Fiction
By Judith Saltman
Volume 16 Number 2
Although several of the titles selected here as Notable Canadian Children's Books of 1986 may certainly be read and enjoyed by teenagers, I have tried to choose titles appropriate to an audience of children between the ages of eight and twelve. Most of these books fall into the grades 5 to 6 readership category, but some younger and older readers would certainly find them appealing.
Why should these books be considered notable -- simply because of the creative tension that exists in a work of strong language or plot or characterization or theme. All of these books also share that elusive quality of appeal. Although they are not for all readers always, these books will have an impact on the hearts and imaginations of certain readers.
Fantasy is a genre in which Canadian children's literature has traditionally been quite weak, but in recent years there has been an increase in new works that reflect real talent and ingenuity. The Emperor's Panda* is one of these new fantasies. It is in the tradition of the romantic quest story but has a more gentle, philosophical tone than most epic fantasies. The setting is ancient China of the Celestial Empire-more of a folk world than the real China -- with elements familiar from the mythical "other worlds" or "secondary realities" of high fantasy.
The protagonist and hero is Kung. He is a humble, thoughtful peasant, a boy-musician who is not in the Western, Arthurian tradition of the warrior-knight who physically battles evil, but in the Eastern Buddhist-Taoist tradition of the artist who painstakingly acquires wisdom and pacifistically restores order to a world that has lost its equilibrium.
Kung undergoes many trials and tests. He rescues his kidnapped uncle, he out-tricks (by wit and wisdom rather than force) dragons and evil sorcerers-he saves the kingdom and restores its harmony (the foolish emperor, like the Western Fisher-King, has lost his integrity and sense of responsibility); and finally, he wins the love of and marries the emperor's daughter.
On all these quests, Kung has a spiritual guide who symbolizes the heart and theme of this fantasy: a mythical demigod figure who recalls Merlin as a mentor and tutor. This mentor, however, is a Giant Panda, a panda possessed of a charming unflappable serenity and whimsical humour. It is the Panda who imparts to Kung the Taoist philosophy of life represented by the symbol of Yin and Yang -- the necessity of a fine, even balance of good and evil, light and dark.
The tone of the novel is a mixture of various elements. The author creates fantastical details in the fairy-tale-like exoticism of ice dragons, dancing unicorns, and a sleeping spell cast by a bamboo grove that cures all evil. The author contrasts this poetic allusiveness with a down-to-earth, colloquial turn of phrase, which at times is consciously anachronistic and results in a purposefully contemporary fairy-tale.
The illustrations and overall fine book design are an important part of this elegant book. The artist, Eric Beddows, is also known as Ken Nutt, the illustrator of the Zoom books. His drawings are in black-and-white graphite. The fine rendering and tonal variations of light and dark emphasize the motif of the Yin and Yang balance in the text. The pictures have the sculptural weight of Chris Van Allsburg's artwork. The carefully researched visual details of ancient Chinese costume and architecture give concreteness to the culture and credibility to the fantasy.
The narrative is not overly long, and, with the illustrations, should appeal to grades 4 to 6.
Turning to realistic fiction, we have two novels of child, family and school life, both set in Vancouver: The Baby Project and The Daring Game.
In The Baby Project** we have a modern family story with a contemporary cast of characters: a working engineer mother, taxi driver and house-husband father, two older sons and the protagonist, eleven-year-old Jessica. The family scenes, natural dialogue, and engagement of characters recall the warmth and humour found in the traditional child and family-life stories of the 1930s to 1950s. The author creates a fully realized world, a family home the reader can walk into and inhabit.
But this is not just an episodic family story, secure and ordinary. With a twist of direction and tone the narrative shifts into devastating tragedy. The first half of the book revels in a quirky humour and sharpness of characterization that at times veer towards Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe saga with such details as the eccentric tenant who writes unforgettable parodies of country and western songs.
This first section also explores the new social realism in children's literature with the impact on the family of a late baby (the mother is 42), and the adjustment to the baby by the entire family. This section of the book has unforgettable scenes, from the stormy adolescent brother quietly reading Motor Trend to the new baby, to Jessica and her friend taping the ocean waves for a baby lullaby.
The second half of the book moves unexpectedly into an entirely different dimension. The baby dies of crib death and the chaos of the family's reactions, from withdrawal and numbness to rage and isolation, is dealt with sensitively and honestly. The author does not show any quick, easy, lushly emotional resolution but the tentative beginnings by each family member of finding balance and solace in a cruelly changed world. The tensions and frictions in a family under stress are explored as they are in Jean Little's Mama 's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird (Penguin, 1984).
There is a rare tonal quality in this book -- a balance of tragedy and comedy, pathos and humour -- that recalls the work of Brian Doyle. The notion that life can be cruel and that humour and love are needed to balance its tragedies is handled sensitively. The necessity of continuing the emotional celebration of life itself, despite its blows, is portrayed in the night bike ride of Jessica and her brother through the magical city in a cleansing odyssey that leads them beyond their pain to the threshold of healing.
And, of course, there is Jessica. We experience her inner psychological life. She is a whole, rounded character on the edge of puberty. Like that of a William Mayne or Jane Gardam character, her mind is constantly turning over ideas and exploring perceptions of self, others, society and the adult world.
The style should be mentioned. Much of the wry wit is implied through seemingly artless very real and colloquial dialogue balanced with Jessica's poignant inner soliloquies.
This book has appeal from grades 5 to 7, but should also enjoy a readership of adults.
The Daring Game*** is written in the tradition of the girl's boarding-school story. It uses the genre in an original way as a springboard to examine the conventions of the school story. These elements are often ironically altered or inverted to create not an episodic school novel of incident but a novel of character.
Twelve-year-old Eliza comes from Edmonton in the 1960s to live for a year in a Vancouver boarding school for girls. The details of this life-the uniforms, school work and school traditions; hierarchical grouping of teachers and students; the intimacies, loyalties, and rivalries among classmates; and the pranks of mischief and dares of testing of character that bond the students together in the subculture of their private world-are delineated carefully.
But this book is not an episodic novel of incident. It is one of character study, and the school year is one of emotional growth for Eliza. Eliza is a very real character -- a tentative, insecure, deeply feeling girl. We watch Eliza progress past loneliness, homesickness, rejection. She wants to avoid the pressures and complexities of adolescence but discovers that growing up is not just the obscure threat of boys and dating. It is also the richness of evolving self-awareness and deepening friendships.
In addition to the theme of friendship. the author explores the theme of conflict of loyalties. When Eliza is forced to choose among duty to the traditions of the school, her love for her friend, and her own personal conscience, her inner struggle proves that life provides no easy solutions.
The style is straightforward and unassuming. Very much like the content of the novel, the tone is quiet and subtle with a very strong sense of place. As a new arrival in Vancouver, Eliza revels in its scented flowering spring, its mountains, and ocean lushness.
Turning to historical fiction, we have two novels set in Canada's recent past: the Depression-era novel, The Empty Chair by Bess Kaplan, and the World War 11 story, Naomi's Road by Joy Kogawa. Interestingly, both were rewritten as children's books from original adult novels.
In 1971 A Child in Prison Camp (Tundra, 1971) by Shizuye Takashima was published. It was the first Canadian children's book to address the experience of a child in the Japanese-Canadian internment camps of World War 11.
Now a second book for children -- Joy Kogawa's Naomi's Road**** -- treats this important topic. Naomi's Road is shaped as a novel of character and incident rather than as a book of memoirs such as the earlier work of Takashima the final result is more intimate and psychologically powerful.
In Naomi's Road, Kogawa has taken her adult award-winning work, Obasan,***** and rewritten it for children. Obasan is quite complex and multilayered . In Naomi's Road, Kogawa has simplified plot and language in an attempt to make the book more direct, straightforward, and accessible to the child reader.
The narrative chronicles several years in Naomi's life, beginning at age five when she and her brother are sent from Vancouver to an internment camp in the interior of B.C. and later to an Alberta farm. Naomi's loss is severe: she is separated from her parents and is cared for by her aunt (Obasan), a figure of love, family continuity, and cultural heritage.
Because Naomi is very young and naive, she does not comprehend the reasons for the disruption of her life. She is bewildered and full of hurt, but not embittered with anger. The tone is therefore not that of the painful memory, even rage, we might expect in a work based on the ugly realities of racism and injustice. In fact, it is often a book of gentle clarity and warmth. There is a tone of hope in the scenes of Naomi's play with her white friend.
There is also a poet's instinct in the imagistic use of small objects and incidents that loom large in a child's life and symbolize significant emotions and perceptions, such as Naomi's lost doll, which carries the burden of her loss of home, family, and cultural tradition.
Of appeal to grades 4 to 6.
The Empty Chair is similar to Joy Kogawa's Naomi's Road in that it was first published as an adult novel (under the title The Corner Store) and is here re-edited and rewritten for children. This trend brings up the interesting question of exactly what the difference between an adult novel about childhood and a book designed for children is.
Like Kogawa, Kaplan has simplified and streamlined her work, coming closer in empathetic identification to the inner self of the child protagonist and establishing an immediacy that is different from the more adult distance, which looks back on childhood in poignant reflection. Despite the ten-year-old age of the protagonist, Kaplan has kept a significant element of this adult consciousness in her text. The book therefore, may straddle the genres of children's and adult literature and may draw two separate audiences -- adult and child .
The action takes place in a period of near history -- the 1930s Depression era as in Bernice Thurman Hunter's "Booky" series and Myra Paperny's Wooden People. It is set in the Jewish community of Winnipeg's north end, where Becky's family lives on the edge of poverty.
Becky has a warm, resilient mother, a difficult, reserved father, and a typical friendly rivalry with her younger brother. As in The Baby Project, the book has a central shift in tone from that of a traditional family story to one of emotional and social realism. The focus shifts from Becky's life at home and school with humorous and poignant details to the sudden death of her mother in childbirth. The novel then becomes steeped in the subtleties of grief until Becky's mourning is disrupted by family matchmaking, which results in a new stepmother.
Throughout, we participate in Becky's inner life as she faces the terrible loss of her mother and experiences resentment towards the proposed stepmother. We experience her imaginative perceptions as a burgeoning writer. We also observe the obsessive, psychological projection of her confused emotions as she creates a frightening ghost apparition of her mother that fills her with guilt and fear.
In one sense, the novel is a study in terrible isolation: Becky is an isolated child trying to find her sense of self within a busy, complex family and school life. The novel chronicles a healing process as she resolves her grief and grows into life.
Canada is just beginning to produce collections of poetry for children written by one author. Most of these new poets-such as Dennis Lee and Robert Heidbreder-write light verse for the younger pre-school or early school-aged child. There is little for the older child/young teenager from about grades 5 to 7 that is serious, lightly humorous, and intimately, naturally colloquial. This is Little's achievement in Hey World, Here l Am!
About fifteen years ago Little wrote two novels of friendship, Look Through My Window and Kate. These works include a strong character who is a poet, thirteen-year-old Kate Bloomfield. Now Little has returned to Kate -- collecting her poems from the previous novels and adding some new ones. The result is an original literary production. The only other children's book character whose poems have been collected in this way is Russell Hoban's Frances the Badger, in Egg Thoughts and Other Frances Songs.
Little's poems are most often written from the first person perspective of a girl moving through the tumult of adolescence, a girl of strong will but deep Insecurities. The book is a mix of poems and prose pieces, similar to what one might expect to find in the soul-searching diary of an adolescent. As it turns earnest, sentimental, and crisply ironic, the writing most often focuses on Kate's quest for identity and meaning. Kate's personal voice speaks in confessional poems of wanting love and acceptance. She reveals not only a need for greater closeness to and understanding of her parents and her best friend Emily, but also her struggle to accept her own creative spirit and Jewish heritage. There are also poems of daily observation of the ordinary events of school the special rare moments of real learning.
Little's style achieves the natural, spontaneous voice of the young teenager. It is colloquial and idiomatic, straightforward yet not banal. Very accessible, the poetry is curiousIy close to what young teenagers actually write. With appeal to grades 5 to 7.
These high quality publications of 1986 represent a broad range of genres. Their variety and integrity bode well for continued growth in Canadian children's literature.*Reviewed vol. XV/1 January 1987 p.l4. paper edition of CM.
**Reviewed vol.XV/I January 1987 p.l5. paper edition of CM.
***Reviewed vol. XIV/4 July 1986 p. l 67. paper edition of CM.
****Reviewed vol. XV/I January 1987 p.l8. paper edition of CM.
*****Reviewed vol. X/3 May 1982 p.l62.paper edition of CM.
Day, David. The Emperor's Panda. McClelland and Stewart 1986.
Ellis, Sarah. The Baby Project. Groundwood, 1986.
Kaplan, Bess. The Empty Chair. Western Producer Prairie Books, 1986.
Kogawa, Joy. Naomi's Road. Oxford, 1986.
little, Jean . Hey World, Here I Am! Kids Can Press,1986.
Pearson,Kit. The Daring Game. Penguin, 1986.
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