Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Before you grow up

Look at the lovely bit of lovely I picked up over the holidays:

1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, Universe, 2009

Edited by Julia Eccleshare, children's book editor for The Guardian, with a preface by Quentin Blake, this is not a reference tome to be brushed aside lightly. And, oh my, the list provided is rich indeed. It's also quite detailed. The book is divided into 5 age categories from birth to young adult. Each book mentioned is accompanied by a meaty, signed annotation, all of which are written by prominent writers, reviewers and academics of children's literature.

As with all list books, it is one part canon-formation and one part springboard for discussion and dissent. My heart leapt so see favourite titles like Shirley Hughes' Dogger and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle on the list, but I was baffled by many other choices and omissions. Why, for example, does the book have 6 titles by Italo Calvino and none by Gerald McDermott? As much as I love William Steig, Alan Garner, John Burningham, Mo Willems, Phillipa Pearce and Quentin Blake (along with many others), why do they have multiple titles represented to the exclusion of key voices such as Nancy Farmer, Peter Spier, Diana Wynne Jones and David Macaulay?

Where for art thou, Farmer Duck?

Come back to the Five and Dime, Iona Opie, Iona Opie?

And, ahem, might I mention that the Caldecott award is named after a pretty influential fellow?--you know, the kind of guy you might want on a list like this. In fact, you might want to choose him over, say, Stephanie Meyer.

I could go on, but I won't because I do think the list that is provided is pretty darn good. Marketed as a popular reference source, it is likely to end up in many households as well as most public libraries. May it lead to more reading and more varied reading for all ages.

Eccelshare makes an effort to provide international, English language representation, which I do applaud, and I notice that there are some fine Canadian writers included in the list: L.M. Montgomery (natch), Elizabeth Cleaver, Monica Hughes, Robert Munsch, Tim Wynne Jones, Deborah Ellis and Margaret Atwood all caught my eye. In the spirit of expanding discussion rather than critique, I would like to provide you with a list of even more Canadian books for children that you should read before you grow up. Print off this list, slip it into the back of 1001 Books, and think of it as an appendix.

In rough age order from birth to adulthood here are

30 31 32 Additional Canadian Books for Children That you Should Read Before You Grow Up

1. Kathy Stinson: Red is Best, 1982
Robin Baird Lewis' simple use of primary colours makes Stinson's story of a toddler's favourite colour flower on the page.

2. Roslyn Schwartz: The Complete Adventures of the Mole Sisters: 10 Stories, 2004
I know I am cheating by picking a collection but the mole sisters' quiet appreciation of the natural world around them grows on the reader, small perfect story after small perfect story.

3. Gilles Tibo: Simon and His Boxes, 1992
Simple text, evocative drawings. Tibo's magic realism for the very young instills a sense of wonder in child and adult alike.

4. Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon: An Illustrated Comic Alphabet, (1859) 1966
Believed to be the first Canadian picture book, this 1859 work was not actually published until 1966. The illustrations look to be part of a strong tradition of 19thC children's book illustration but they pre-date those by Caldecott, Brooke and Greenaway. Only in Canada you say? Pity.

5. Marie-Louise Gay: Stella: Star of the Sea, 1999
For whimsy, poetic language, and masterful character depiction, any Stella and Sam book will do, but the first one, published originally in French as Stella: étoile de la mer, has its own special magic. Oh, just read everything Gay writes/illustrates. You won't regret it.

6. Barbara Reid: Two By Two, 1992
Reid's incredibly detailed clay models speak to her commitment to her craft. Two By Two is a sing-a-long retelling of the story of Noah's Ark. It's my personal favourite of hers but my 4-yr-old daughter is quite keen on The Subway Mouse as well. Reid has also created illustrations for other prominent Canadian children's authors: Jo Ellen Bogart's Gifts and Kenneth Oppel's Peg and the Yeti are standouts for me.

7. Tomsom Highway: Dragonfly Kites, 2002
Tomson Highway's children's book are told in English and Cree and tell of young native children who have a strong link to their cultural heritage. Brian Deines' muted watercolours complement Highway's sparse, imagistic language.

8. Dennis Lee: Alligator Pie, 1974
Alligator Pie started the conversation about poetry for children in Canada. Now we are a nation rich with children's poetry. Enough said.

9. Phoebe Gilman: Something From Nothing, 1992
The woman who penned the very popular Jillian Jiggs books has so many other wonderful stories to her credit. My daughter's long-time favourite is The Gypsy Princess. I, however, don't think anyone retells the Jewish folktale of Joseph and his overcoat better than Gilman does in Something From Nothing. Don't forget to watch the mouse family under the floor boards.

10. Jean Little: Pippin the Christmas Pig, 2003
Jean Little is a fixture of Canadian children's literature who writes for a broad range of ages. I am partial to this contemporary retelling of the Christmas story through the eyes of a small, seemingly insignificant pig.

11. Tom King: A Coyote Columbus, 1992
Lovers of The Dead Dog Comedy Hour on CBC radio will love King's irreverant take on first contact. William Kent Monkman's neon illustrations can be a bit much on the eye but they are well suited to the sass of Coyote, the baseball cheat.

12. Sheree Fitch: Sleeping Dragons All Around, 1989 (2009)
No other Canadian writer for children delights in language quite the way Sheree Fitch does. Her poetry explodes with rhyme, image and assonance, and she is always doing her utmost to expand a child's vocabulary in the most precocious manner possible. Sleeping Dragons was recently republished by Nimbus Press in a 20th anniversary edition. Get it before it's gone.

13. Dominique Jolin: Old Thomas and the Little Fairy, 2000
Despair, hope, love and death: Jolin's fable of an old man who nurses a wounded fairy back to health is anything but simple. Stéphane Poulin's evokative and moody illustrations are exactly what the story demands.

14. Ian Wallace: The True Story of Trapper Jack's Left Big Toe, 2002
This list wouldn't be complete without a tall tale. I like this one from the Yukon rendered with ease and wonder by CanLit mainstay, Ian Wallace. Just what is in that empty tobacco tin in the Sourdough Saloon? Read this book and maybe, just maybe, you'll find out.

15. Nan Gregory: How Smudge Came, 1995
Cindy finds a puppy and wants to keep it. Can a children's story be more cliché than this? Ah, but if you tell that story with just the right combination of words, and if you combine that story with illustrations that round it out with complexity and nuance, then what you're left with is a work of art. Ron Lightburn, illustrator.

16. Roch Carrier: The Hockey Sweater, 1984
It's a classic, sure, this tale of the young Canadiens' fan who mistakenly receives a Leafs' jersey from the Eaton's catalogue. I personally don't think it's a particularly good children's story per se--more of a nostalgic adult reminicence--but you can't really be a Canadian and not read it. It's become part of our cultural lexicon.

17. Mordecai Richler: Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, 1975
Jacob Two-Two is two plus two plus two years old and has a habit of saying everything twice in order to be heard above his two older sisters and two older brothers. A funny, surreal chapter book that's wonderfully Richler all the way. Psst: there are two sequels.

18. Janet Lunn: The Twelve Dancing Princesses, 1979
Lunn's adaptation of of this French folktale, expertly illustrated by Canada's premiere folklore illustrator, Laszlo Gal, is a must. It's also just one of many examples of quality Canadian contributions to the illustrated folklore tradition.

19. Paul Yee: Ghost Train, 1997
A dark story about a dark chapter in Canada's history, Ghost Train tells of Choon-yi, a young Chinese girl and artist, who emigrates to Canada to join her father. Only when she arrives does she learn that he has been killed while working to build the national railroad. Illustrations by Harvey Chan.

20. Gordon Korman: This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall, 1978
This novel was written when Korman was in the seventh grade and was published when he was 14 years old. 60+ novels later, Canada's wunderkind is all grown up and still publishing fun, funny, and sometimes dark novels for children and young adults.

21. Brian Doyle: Angel Square, 1984
An honour book for the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award in 2004, Doyle's Angel Square does indeed have staying power. Religion, class and the long shadow of World War II are all mixed up in Angel Square, the neighbourhood where Tommy first enters the world of really knowing.

22. Bernice Thurman Hunter: That Scatterbrain Booky, 1981
Set in The Great Depression, Hunter's series of Booky novels combine an endearing heroine with detailed historical realism. These books are an unacknowledged pre-cursor to the more recent historical fiction series, Our Canadian Girl and Dear Canada.

23. Joan Clark: The Moons of Madeline, 1987
Madeline, on the cusp of her teen years, travels to Calgary to visit her cousin. Feeling homesick, one night she dons a moon mask that was made for her by her friend, Old Angus. The mask is a portal to a fantastic world where Madeline encounters a society of priestesses. The Moons of Madeline is a cornerstone in the Canadian children's fantasy genre. It's also a little slice of old school girl power, dated but delicious.

24. Polly Horvath: Everything on a Waffle, 2001
Whacky, dark and filled with memorable characters who have even more memorable names--that's what Horvath's novels are. I particularly liked this one and The Canning Season, 2003, wherein a character actually manages to decapitate herself. Despite the dark overtones to Horvath's writing, the novels are filled with love and deep, meaningful human connection.

25. Arthur Slade: Dust, 2001
A positively creepy tale set in enchanted-reality version of depression-era Saskachewan. The first chapter had me hyperventilating in fear, and I simply could not exhale or put the book down until I was done. Winner of the Governor-General's Literary Award.

26. Budge Wilson: Fractures, 2002
Thanks to Alice Munroe, Canada is known as a literary powerhouse in the short story genre. For the young adult set, I like this collection of dysfuntional domestic tales by Nova Scotia's Budge Wilson.

27. Beth Goobie: Before Wings, 2000
I think Beth Goobie is one of the best, most literary writers for young adults alive. In Before Wings, 15-year-old Adrien learns to live in the face of death (she's suffered one brain aneurysm and fears she may suffer another). She does this by spending the summer at her aunt Erin's camp, where she slips between past and present, uncovering a mystery that has haunted both the camp and her brittle aunt.

28. Kevin Major: Ann and Seamus, 2003
What? You thought I had forgotten poetry when I left the books for young children behind? Ann and Seamus is a series of poems that tells the historical account of Ann Harvey, a Newfoundland girl who helps to rescue passengers from the shipwrecked Despatch in 1828. The poems recount her courtship with one of the passengers, Seamus, and her ultimate decision about whether to follow him or stay in Newfoundland.

29. Kenneth Oppel: Airborn, 2004
Canada's other wunderkind, Kenneth Oppel, was discovered by Roald Dahl when he was fourteen years old. He has numerous great books for children of all ages but is most famous for his Silverwing series and his Airborn series. I must confess that I have not yet read the former but I loved the Airborn series with its hot air balloons and fantastically distorted version of the world we live in. Steam punk has recently become all the rage in YA. The market and my tastes may be reaching surfeit point, but Airborn somehow remains fresh six years later.

30. W. O. Mitchell Who Has Seen the Wind, 1947
Reading this novel about growing up on the prairies, about learning of God, love, nature and death, is a mandatory rite of passage isn't it? Isn't it?

31. Martha Brooks: True Confessions of a Heartless Girl, 2002
A young woman whose need is great is taken in by a caring community. This novel is the all-grown-up version of Pippin the Christmas Pig, for it reveals how we transform ourselves when we have the courage to accept and nurture others without fear.

32. Joy Kogawa Obasan, 1981
Naomi, a teacher in her mid-thirties, visits her aging aunt in order to care for her. During her visit she relives her childhood experiences during and following WWII when her family was forcibly moved from BC to Alberta to work on a sugar beet farm as interned Japanese Canadians.

Must stop now. The trouble is I keep thinking of others that could and should be added to this list (Bah! Teddy Jam's Night Cars, Zeman's retellings of Gilgamesh, Sheppard's Seven for a Secret...). And don't forget I haven't included any works by Canadian authors that were included 1001 Books.

Ah, but the best thing about my list is that you and you and you can keep on adding to it in the comment section. Have a title you know must be here? Let me know and write your own brief annotation.