We often take for granted the fact that Canadian culture is different from that of our neighbours to the south. However, the close proximity of the United States has facilitated the exchange of art and culture, which has generated certain similarities. For children, whose exposure to culture generally revolves around television, books, film and music, making the distinction between what makes a cultural product Canadian or American may not be so easy.
That is why it is important to introduce them to books that focus on our unique heritage. Our history is different from the Americans, as are many of our values, and this has an impact on the stories we tell and the way we tell them. Many Canadian books seem less hampered by commercialism and hold a sensitive and humanistic perspective that reflects our Canadian
With Canada Day just around the corner, it is a great time to celebrate our cultural richness and take pride in our country’s creations. Here are some of the best children’s picture books that have been released in the past year, many of which capture the diversity and imagination that are part of the Canadian spirit.
The Boy from the Sun (Simply Read Books, $17.95)
by Duncan Weller (Ages 3-6)
This admittedly strange and quirky book will immediately charm readers with its simple magic. Sad looking children with dark faces sit listlessly on the sidewalk while noxious fumes from factory smokestacks rise into the air. That is until the boy from the sun descends from the sky with his bright yellow beacon. He shows the children how to love nature and the playful joys it has to offer. By the time the boy returns to where he came from, the children have become aware of the importance of protecting their natural environment. Despite its simplicity, this Governor-General nominated book transmits a crucial theme to children about the environment, which is critical for Canadian society as we are one of the worst polluters in the world. Perhaps this future generation will reverse that trend.
Marja’s Skis (Groundwood Books, $17.95)
by Jean E. Pendziwol (Ages 4-8)
Marja is a little Finnish immigrant girl living with her family in the woods of northern Ontario during the 1800s. Her father is a lumberjack who dies in an accident, leaving the family to struggle to make ends meet. Marja, who has been trying to cope with being an immigrant, finds it all the more difficult now that her father is gone. She decides to bring a piece of home into her life and takes up cross-country skiing, finding strength in her adventures through the woods. When she helps save another logger who has fallen through the ice, she begins to realize the importance of being part of a community. The story beautifully illustrates the Finnish immigrant experience as well as how new cultures add to the multicultural landscape of Canada with their own traditions.
Nana, what do you say? (Pirouli, $19.95)
by Ranee Lee (Ages 5-10)
This is Montreal jazz singer Ranee Lee’s first foray into children’s writing. Her picture book brings to life the main inspiration for her art: her family. The story is written from the point of view of a little boy who adores his grandparents and the way they make him feel special. He describes his relationship with them as well as the relationship they have with the other children in the family. As he talks about each, what begins as jealousy turns into understanding, as he sees how each grandchild has his or her own special need. At the end of most pages, the author asks the reader a series of questions that allow children to reflect on their own relationships with their family members. The story captures the realities of family dynamics and how we develop relationships.
The Painted Circus (Kids Can Press, $19.95)
by Wallace Edwards (Ages 7-12)
This large picture book will have kids feeling like they’ve been sitting under the big top without ever leaving their bedroom. The author’s enchanted circus is filled with curious creatures just waiting to do their eye-popping acts. The tricks in this circus, however, don’t involve tigers jumping through hoops of fire or flying trapeze artists but rather, are challenging optical illusions that kids are invited to solve. For instance, one page shows three beautiful parrots and tells the reader the following: “Use your magic to see the parrots become pirates.” When the page is flipped over, the coloured details of the parrots’ feathers transform like magic into the cruel smiles and threatening eyes of three pirates. Some of the illusions might be a bit difficult to see at first but once revealed, kids will be enchanted by the magic hidden in each page.
Pier 21: Stories from Near and Far (Lobster Press, $19.95)
by Anne Renaud (Ages 7-12)
This non-fiction book provides the history of Pier 21, Canada’s famous immigration port. Located off Halifax Harbour, the pier housed a wooden shed where immigrants coming off boats arriving from Europe would be processed into the country. The book covers the various waves of immigrants who arrived in Canada during the 20th century, from Eastern Europeans who came in the 20s and 30s to refugees from World War II. Although many of these people would go on to live in all parts of the country, Pier 21 was where they took their first steps on Canadian soil. For them, Pier 21 represented more than just a simple port: it was the beginning of a journey into a new world and a new life.