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Doers And Seekers
by Welwyn Wilton Katz

CLAIRE MACKAY'S Pay Cheques & Picket Lines, illustrated by Eric Parker (Kids Can, $12.95 paper, $19.95 cloth), is an amusing, passionate account of how and why unions came about, what they do, and what is likely to happen to them in the future. In Mackay's hands, union history is not a long fist of facts and figures, but real stories about real people. No one could read the story of John Gale (whose arm was chewed up Eke a sausage in a mill accident when he was 12 and who "had a good boss and so was paid for the whole day") without feeling an almost personal sense of outrage. Mackay has the fiction writer's understanding that, even in nonfiction, child readers need child characters they can identify with, particularly characters who do things the reader might wish to have done himself. Her book fills a notable gap, too; before Pay Cheques & Picket Lines there had been virtually nothing written for children on unions in general or Canadian union history in particular.

Mackay's humour lightens even the most grim statistics and photographs. The photo caption of a bank littered with paper during the Visa strike of 1985 is "Is that trash or Visa?" and the comical illustrations are appropriate and lively. The design of the book is rich, with illustrations, photographs, or inserts about word derivations on almost every page. This usually enhances the writing, though in a few places the main narrative feels interrupted by the inserts. I learned a great deal from this book, and I laughed a lot as I read it.

In Little by Little: A Writer's Education, by Jean Little (Viking, 233 pages, $14.95, cloth), one of Canada's most important children's writers tells the story of her early years. At five, Jean Little first discovered she had "bad eyes." A friend told her she couldn't climb a tree because of her vision. With courage and determination Little climbed the tree anyway. "Whether I ever got there or not, I was heading for the top of the tree."

Little's story takes her from pessimistic eye specialists near Taiwan, where she was born, to sight-saving classes and then regular schools in Guelph, Ontario. By the book's end, she has achieved an honours -degree in English from Victoria College in Toronto and the publication of her first novel, Mine for Keeps, although she was never able to see a chalkboard or read the printed page unless her nose was pressed right against it. Along the way, there were taunts from other children and slights from well-meaning teachers who felt she belonged in a school for the blind. Even her family, who loved her and didn't want her alone and functionally blind in a city she didn't know, tried to dissuade her from her passionate wish to go to university.

The young Jean Little refused to be a victim of her blindness, and although there is great sadness and loneliness in Little by Little, this is not a dark book. The joy she found in her family, in a fleet of orange wedges fined up on the windowsill, in her discovery of the library, in her ability to make the piano keys talk to each other is powerfully described. And a stream of understated humour runs cleanly through the book, giving it the balance and detachment essential in writing of such emotional force. Children may need encouragement to read Little by Little because the cover looks too scholarly and adult, but inside, everything is highly appealing, to any age.

The title character in Lisa, by Carol Matas (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 122 pages, $9.95, paper), is a Jewish teen-ager growing up in Copenhagen under Nazi occupation. The story covers three years, from the night the Germans invade until Lisa and her family must leave Denmark to escape being sent to the Nazi death camps. At 12, Lisa joins the Danish resistance, progressing from passing out leaflets to helping blow up factories and aiding with other escapes. Eventually, Lisa comes to fear that in its violence the resistance could become as bad as the Nazis; yet in the end, she kills a man herself. There are many violent acts in Lisa, but the book is made less dark by the characters' desire to move beyond them.

The book is necessarily episodic (because of the long time span) but still moves quickly and is exciting and suspenseful. Matas writes with the verve she showed in her other books but with more control and less confusion. Still, there are technical flaws. One problem is that Matas writes in the present tense and the first person, a diaristic style that gives immediacy but is hard to accept in action scenes (one can't imagine Lisa with pen in hand recording the events as they happen); it also makes it easy to get lost in the flashbacks. I had a disorienting sense of not always knowing when now was.

A Darker Magic, by firstnovelist Michael Bedard (Collier Macmillan, 183 pages, $20.25 cloth), is the story of a magic show that takes away children's souls. It is a work of great originality, one of the most terrifying books I've ever read. It is well written, despite some weak dialogue and a vagueness regarding the main characters' ages.

But there is no light in A Darker Magic. Children cannot win against the sinister Mephisto. They vanish, or their heads are chopped off, and even their souls are taken. Craig and Emily, the two child protagonists of the book, are not saved from this fate by any strengths of their own, but only because their elderly teacher, Miss Potts, intervenes. All the children of this book are either victims or potential victims. Whatever they do, they cannot change the course of events. This depiction of helpless, doomed children is so skilful, so believable that child readers will not be able to resist it: they may well take terror and hopelessness away from this book, not the sense that they matter or that they might defend themselves by their own actions.

Logically, Miss Potts's actions at the climax do not seem nearly powerful enough to stop Mephisto. He has already managed to control her magically at least once; why not again? The problem is that Bedard has made the forces of darkness too strong and invincible to be credibly defeated, even temporarily. Emily's lack of fear when she realizes she will be taking Miss Potts's role the next time Mephisto reappears is not credible. Bedard is an extremely talented writer, but in this book his vision is as hopeless and twisted as anything I have ever read. A Darker Magic is almost a brilliant book, but is it for children? I don't think so.


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