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Manitoba History: Review: Irma McDonough (editor), Canadian Books for Young People

by Perry Nodelman
University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Canadian Books for Young People/Livres canadiens pour la jeunesse 1980. Edited by Irma McDonough. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980. x, 205 pp. ISBN 0-8020-4594-4

As a Canadian, I find Canadian Books for Young People embarrassing—and not because it does a poor job of covering its subject. Quite the opposite; Irma McDonough says that her bibliography is “inclusive rather than exclusive,” and it is very inclusive indeed. It includes a book called Girls’ Gymnastics are Fun!, another called The Art of Aluminum Foil, and another called All About Ontario Tables, which is a companion volume to All About Ontario Chairs and All About Ontario Desks. These are subjects I had not even got around to being afraid to ask about.

It is the inclusiveness of McDonough’s bibliography that is embarrassing. The almost two thousand entries in Canadian Books for Young People are exactly what McDonough claims they are—“the most informative, relevant and excellent books for young people in print.” As much as I hate to admit it, this sorry lot is, indeed, the best Canadian writing for children.

There are good reasons for the poor quality of most Canadian children’s literature, the most significant of them being the ready availability in Canada of British and American books. Canadian books have smaller print runs, and are therefore more expensive than the excellent foreign books they have to compete with. So they must be noticeably and distinctly “Canadian” in order to warrant the expense; publishers know that a book similar to the ones the Americans publish but which costs quite a few dollars more is not likely to sell. In other words, what is “Canadian” is determined by a process of elimination. Any area or aspect of life that Canadians might share with other people who speak English is obviously not “Canadian.” We have al-most no books about ordinary Canadian children living, as most ordinary Canadian children do, in ordinary Canadian suburbs. And we have next to no fantasy, for the simple reason that the worlds of fantasy are by definition anything but recognizably Canadian.

What we do have in great quantities is three things: books about natives; books about adventures in the wilds; books about hockey. Almost sixty of the eighty books of folklore listed in Canadian Books for Young People are Indian or Eskimo; the other twenty only minimally cover the “folkloristic” roots of the vast majority of the Canadian population. There are also at least fifty works of fiction in which native Canadians figure prominently, and the misrepresentation of native culture in these books is even more disproportionate than the numbers of books which misrepresent it. One begins to think that the ability to tell lies about natives is the only distinctive quality of Canadian life.

Even more disproportionate are the almost count-less books about canoes, rushing rapids, and people and/or animals hitting each other. And as for hockey, there is everything from A Boy in the Leafs’ Camp to Hockey Masks and the Goalies Who Wear Them to She Shoots! She Scores! As I glanced through Canadian Books for Young People, I begin to imagine the Great Canadian Children’s Novel—a thrilling adventure about a team of brave but taciturn Inuit playing brutal but gentlemanly hockey with a team of taciturn but brave Indians, somewhere in the depths of the wilderness, probably using frozen beaver tails as sticks, and inevitably teaching some blonde but misinformed white Canadian children a profound lesson about either tolerance, or courage, or both.

I am being too harsh. There are some excellent Canadian books for children. There are the wonderful poems by Dennis Lee, and the competent historical novels by Barbara Claassen Smucker. There are beginning to be good books set in cities; one of them, Corner Store by Winnipegger Bess Kaplan, isn’t even included in McDonough’s bibliography. There are even some good Canadian fantasies, among them Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, Ruth Nichols’ Marrow of the World, and Margaret Laurence’s The Olden Days Coat. But there are not two thousand good Canadian books. There are not even two hundred. In its careful, competent inclusiveness, Canadian Books for Young People is sadly revealing of the generally sorry state of Canadian children’s literature—and the distressing lack of courage of Canadian children’s publishers.

Curriculum Education Program, Dalnavert Museum
Source: Tim Worth, Dalnavert Museum

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