IN RECENT YEARS SOME ERRONEOUS information about there being piles of money available for Canadian children's literature (and music) has resulted in quite a boom in the children's publishing industry. The work of Canadian authors and illustrators is everywhere, not just in this country but south of the border and all round the world. English-language picture- books are often pre-sold, translated, and simultaneously published in Gujarati, Urdu, French, German, Swahili, Zogub, and many other languages. Our books -- and thereby our culture -- seem to travel well, and for that we can be happy.
Lately, though, there are signs that the wave is cresting. The lucrative American market is glutted and ever more nationalistic. It is much harder to presell a Canadian book in the United States than it was two or three years ago. This has resulted in a little belt-tightening here and there in the publishing industry, as costs go up and sales go down. This poses a particular threat to picture-books, the reasons being purely financial.
The work of illustrating is time-consuming and exacting. For this slow glory, which can take up to a year, an illustrator sensibly requires a working wage -- calI it an advance or a commission, either way a publisher must make an "up front" investment that, when added to the text writer's advance (if any), and the costs of production, promotion, and marketing, can make the publishing of picturebooks an extra-risky business. The most recent batch of picture-books shows that many publishers are still willing to take this risk, sometimes with very good results.
Dog stories will probably always be appealing to children and Milton, My Father's Dog (Tundra, 24 pages, $13.95 cloth), written and illustrated by Eric Copeland, is no exception. Copeland is an accomplished illustrator and adorns his tale (no pun intended) with both black-and-white drawings and engaging watercolours. His endearing recounting of the life and adventures of the family dog is enriched by a plot twist that affirms the old maxim, the victor writes history. In this case Copeland writes it rather well and the result should please many children.
The separation of a child from a parent, whether by misadventure or miscalculation, is a possibility that every family dreads. The temptation, especially around the "misadventure" aspect of it, is to keep the whole subject -- and thereby the dread -- as far from one's mind as possible. These days, however, this is not a responsible approach. Parents have to be aware; children must be educated. What to do, then, with the terrible fear that the thought of a young child's separation from its parents can evoke?
Heather Patricia Ward supplies some answers in I Promise I'll Find You (Firefly, 24 pages, $11.95 cloth). Told in the rather extravagant style of certain kinds of romantic love poems -- "Till the mountains crumble, etc. ... " -- the book proposes a varying series of assurances to a child. For instance: "If I had a little rowboat / I'd row across the sea / I'd row, row, row / And I'd bring you back to me." A few of the lines in some of the quatrains don't count enough for my taste and could be improved, but mostly I like the text of this brave book. The illustrations by Sheila McGraw (of Love You Forever fame) are amiable and a touch comic, giving a kind of balance to this necessarily edgy package, which will, I hope, reach a wide audience. Especially considering that a portion of the proceeds from its sale goes to childfinding agencies across Canada.
What could be more metaphor-friendly than snow? Each snowflake's alleged once-in-history uniqueness, its fragility, its participation in the great cycles and ways of water would seem to leave it ready made to comment on life, individuality, death, transition, and rebirth. Indeed, the common snowflake is a virtual ganglion of kidbook potentiality. The award-winning author Lyn Cook, however, takes none of these obvious routes. Her answer to the child's perennial question Where Do the Snowflakes Go? (Moonstone, 32 pages, $6.95 paper) is that after they fall everywhere, the sun takes them all back up into the sky, apparently without first melting and evaporating them. Here they are kept intact in a castle until the king of the castle decides to let them drop again. I don't mind that this book's attempted myth-making defies common sense and science, but a myth should contain a higher truth. Here there is no such truth, no conflict, no implied morality, very little story, and far too much repetition. Rossitza Skortcheva's artful illustrations are too good to be wasted. My humble suggestion is that in future reprintings of the book, the text should be heartily rewritten.
Moe Price's The Lazy Enormosaur (Party Pigs, 32 pages, $6.95 paper) advertises itself as a Learning Adventure. The main character is a little bipedal pseudodinosaur of indeterminate species who walks upright and wears the bottom half of an eggshell as a kind of diaper. One day Fuzzi discovers to her dismay that hair has grown on her head. Her mother, to cheer her up, suggests the world's first ever hairdo. When this doesn't work, she suggests a swim. But when they get to the swimming hole, alas, it has all but dried up. Fuzzi and friend Delbert, a kind of beamewearing rhino, trek off through dino land with other creatures of questionable authenticity to bust up a dam someone has built. That someone turns out to be a very friendly and articulate enormosaur. The enormosaur has built the dam so that he won't have so far to travel to get water, but when he realizes the repercussions of his actions he quickly and most graciously (and without any laziness at all) destroys the dam. Not only that, but he makes favourable remarks about Fuzzi's primal hairdo, so that she feels even better. More adventures are promised. This all takes place, by the way, in a completely unsubstantiated era referred to as the Dinazoic.
On a literary level I would make the small complaint that this story is rather thin, functioning at about the same level as an old Dell comic book. But what did this alleged "learning adventure" teach us? Nothing. There is no justification whatsoever for calling this a Learning Adventure. Mary Ann Rawluk's art is better than the text, but the dino faces are too tinsel-town cutesy. And on the factual level there are distinct depictions of flowers. If there's one thing I know about dinosaur times ... it's that there were no flowers.
Nanabosho: How the Turtle Got Its Shell (Pemmican, 48 pages, $9.95 paper) does not pretend to be factual. It is the fifth title in Pemmican's delightful series about the legendary character Nanabosho. The story, which is the "re-telling" of a story from Native oral culture, is simply and aptly written down by the talented Winnipeg teacher Joe McClellan and ought to appeal to very young children. Rhian Brynjolson's colourful pictures complement the story perfectly.
The best picture-books have to excel at the difficult task of pleasing adults and children alike. This is something that Lights for Gita (Second Story, 24 pages, $12.95 cloth, $5.95 paper), by Rachna Gilmore, certainly accomplishes. The story is simply but effectively told. A young girl, new to Canada, is missing her home in India. As the time for the Hindu festival Divali draws near, this homesickness becomes more and more poignant. Gripped by the young girl's loneliness, we are then rewarded with a nice little plot twist involving some very believable but still wonderful action concerning "lights." Here we are included in an emotional and magical resolution that crosses cultural boundaries and embraces us all in its humanness. But have no fear -- it's not pushy, didactic, preachy, righteous, or any of those other dastardly P.C. backlash words. It is just magical. The tone and wonder of the text are matched superbly by Alice Priestly's luminous, sensuous illustrations. Her ability to catch the nuances of a face from many different angles is breathtaking. These depictions glow. The suggestion of a magical or divine underlay is palpable but subtle. Food for the eyes. Magic for the soul. Available shortly, if there's any justice, in at least eight different languages.