CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 18. . . . May 9, 2003
The Last Unicorn on the Prairies is the first illustrated picture book to be published by Great Plains Publications, a small regional Canadian press.
Author Rick McNair, a former teacher, is a well known storyteller, actor and playwright. This book, which obviously was born and refined through oral telling, relates the tale of a group of farm animals who go in search of a unicorn, hoping to get the gold or wish needed to keep their farm solvent. Realizing that they were being too noisy to capture the unicorn, the animals store their voices in a box. While they eventually track down the mystical beast, they do not succeed in capturing her. This makes them so angry that they were not careful in retrieving their voices from the box, with the result that the voices get mixed up. The story ends with the rooster crowing moo, the dog meowing at the cat and the cat barking at the dog.
Children are sure to enjoy this humour. They will also like the actions built into the story which would be mimed by the reader/teller (and the children themselves) as the animals "follow the hoof prints of Unicorn up and over, under, around, between backwards and through the Prairies." The unicorn's song is quite typical of the language used throughout:
This excerpt also demonstrates a significant weakness of this book. This is a song, and it simply is not as rich or engaging in print as it would be if it were sung (no music is provided). The Last Unicorn on the Prairies is not as good a story in print as it is told live. The sounds of the animals, the actions as they move, the music of the language are lost. A told story does not move well to print without making appropriate changes in the language. This is readily evident when one thinks about print and verbal versions of fairy and folk tales - there are significant differences in the language. A better medium for The Last Unicorn on the Prairies would be one such as video or audio-recording, that maintains more of the richness of the oral medium.
Colourful pencil crayon illustrations by Chris McVarish-Younger are attractive. They are consistent with the text though not needed to move forward the plot of this story as the text does this on its own. Local flora, in particular the inclusion of wildflowers and agricultural crops, give a sense of the Canadian prairies. However, the landscape is depicted as gently rolling hills. Having grown up in this area, I know that this is exceptional rather than typical for this setting. While this may serve to make the images more visually interesting, the illustrator has not taken on the more interesting challenge of depicting and communicating the subtle beauty of the flat prairie terrain.
There was a time when the number of books about unicorns did not match children's interest in this mythical beast. But that is no longer true. There are an increasing number of high quality titles including Gail Gibbons' nonfiction book Behold the Unicorns! (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) and Robert Heidbreder's I Wished for a Unicorn, a Canadian title published by Kids Can Press (Toronto, 2000) and illustrated by award-winning Kady MacDonald Denton. Similarly, librarians and teachers looking for literature set in the Prairie Provinces have better alternatives. Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet's A Prairie Alphabet (Montreal: Tundra, 1992) describes and depicts many more prairie specific flora and fauna in an interesting and readily accessible format. And nothing can evoke the prairies as well as William Kurelek's wonderful paintings in A Prairie Boy's Summer (Montreal: Tundra, 1975) and A Prairie Boy's Winter (Montreal: Tundra, 1973).
A reasonably strong binding and good quality glossy paper stock combine for acceptable physical durability. The illustrations are large enough and the text of a suitable length for sharing with small groups of children.
Overall, The Last Unicorn on the Prairies did not make the transition from the oral to the print medium as well as it might have. Nevertheless, children who have experienced Rick McNair as a live storyteller and performer would enjoy seeing this book which would serve as a reminder and an artifact of remembered and enjoyed storytelling sessions. School and public libraries located in the Prairie Provinces would probably want to add this title to their collections despite its shortcomings.
Recommended with reservations.
Lynne McKechnie is an Associate Professor who teaches children's literature and library services for children in the Graduate Program of Library and Information Science at the University of Western Ontario in London, ON.
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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.