Anyone who likes children's literature and deals with children has a scenario of the reading that people ought to experience before they become fifteen years old. We do try to be flexible. A children's librarian I knew in the 1960s adamantly refused to let anyone out of the children's section until high school. "But you haven't finished everything that's here!" she would snarl at the children who were eyeing adult delights. Farley Mowat, books on World War II aircraft, Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, To Kill a Mockingbird all were firmly removed from the longing hands of youngsters who had ideas above their station.
Most of us are not unsympathetic to her viewpoint. Most of us want children of the right age to encounter the books we know and adore. But our faith in the survival of readers and good literature lets us relax, knowing that splendid children's books can be read with delight at any age. Of all the literatures, children's is the most durable. Libraries, bookstore, and children's bedrooms will permanently stock The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, Charlotte's Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, and (we hope) Dick King-Smith's Babe, the Gallant Pig. Adults will pass on their childhood books to the next generation. In the school library at lunch time a lordly Grade 6 will say to a lowly Grade 3 browser, "Wow, yes, I loved that!" So we don't panic.
Our scenario has it that by the time they reach fifteen years, well-brought-up adolescents should have at least tasted perhaps two dozen indispensable books, another thirty or so of lesser importance (many of them interchangeable), non-fiction of various types, and a whole range of fiction genres. Moreover they'll be acquainted with adult stuff that is either accessible or very challenging indeed.
Of children's literature, we always wonder: Where does this fit in? Is it something that no child ought to do without? Or something that no child ought to waste time on? Will it achieve unmerited popularity, or be unjustly ignored? Will the current crop of new books mercifully slip into remainder piles, or will they be always and everywhere in classrooms, school, and public libraries, under the tree at Christmas, offered in second-hand books store, and passed joyfully down the generations?
Donn Kushner has several books (notably The Violin-maker's Gift), none of them startling. The Night Voyagers is something else. The story of a family escaping from the Central America of the mid-80s and seeking asylum in the U.S. and Canada, it made my hair stand on end. It mixes social commentary (shown, not preached) and deft characterization with a powerful use of mythic figures and symbolism. A book that will last. A landmark.
Tim Wynne-Jones is widely known for his wonderful picture books Zoom at Sea and its successors, and his well-crafted, prize-winning volumes of short stories. I would guess that in ten years' time his novel The Maestro will be in most Canadian children's book collections. It won the Governor General's award, features a First Nations kid as its protagonist, a Glenn Gould figure, throws in a whiff of child abuse, and has a first-class description of Toronto in November. But I like even better how Wynne-Jones communicates the mixture of horror and attraction that our wilderness has for many urban Canadians, and the sense of business-like familiarity that those who have been properly raised with it feel. I don't think it's as good as The Night Voyagers, though. It hasn't enough governing structure to be entirely satisfactory; after reading it you feel that you've been moved strongly and competently in rather too many directions in too short a time. But this is destined, I predict, to be a standard item. And rightly so.
No female Canadian these days reaches puberty without having been exposed to Jean Little's work. Twenty years after its initial publication, Stand in the Wind has been reissued. It's a tale of four girls of the usual ten-to-fifteen-year range who are very different and learn a lot from each other, etc., etc. I wish I liked this genre better, except that then, like the person who hated spinach and was glad he did because otherwise he might eat it and he loathed the stuff, I might read more of it. If you do like it, Little is very reliable. One of her characters is an over-sophisticated little madam, of the sort who usually gets her comeuppance. Whereas lesser practitioners in this genre would yield to the temptation of making her a cardboard cut-out fall-guy, here she is reasonably well-rounded and kindly treated. Yet, perversely, I would like to have been Little's editor, and been able to request that she rewrite this entirely, recasting it in the first-person voice of the little madam.
Monica Hughes, as omnipresent as Jean Little, writes science fiction and fantasy. Although I enjoy this genre more than Little's, Hughes is arguably not as good a writer, and certainly not as widely read by children. I keep urging her books on the young, but haven't found a sure-fire way of getting them read. Personally I'm a sucker for a good plot, and Hughes has come up with some dandies, but as a discerning fourteen-year-old rural male said to me, "She's in too much of a hurry with it." We assume that young readers are mainly captivated by action, but this is not necessarily so. An eleven-year-old urban female loved Little's Look Through my Window, explaining, "I enjoyed the personalities and the situation." But she was disappointed by its sequel, Kate: "She was just telling a story, that's all." Hughes's Castle Tourmandyne concerns two girls of roughly the same ages as in Stand in the Wind and there is another over-sophisticated little madam-whose mind we do enter. She seems to have a headache throughout most of the book, and you don't get that marvellous sense of smug self-righteous superiority that comes with being tidy and well-dressed. The two girls build an antique paper doll's house, and their animosity sets free an evil power associated with its first owner. It's a page-turner, though; I missed my subway stop reading it on the way to work.
Realism-with-an-older-protagonist is another type of childhood reading. Sometimes the protagonist loses his or her virginity in the course of the book, and then it is moved into the "Young Adults" section of the library. The sixteen-year-old heroine of Summer of Madness by Marion Crook retains her maidenhead; she is too busy to get laid. She has an exciting time managing her mother's half of the ranch work, her small sister, various 4-H projects, and capturing a villain who is poisoning livestock on their ranch in the Cariboo region of British Columbia. The book opens with a rip-snorting description of her driving a tractor hell-bent-for-election into the more inaccessible part of the acreage in search of a sick calf; her best friend, the son of a neighbouring spread, is clinging on for dear life bellowing at her to slow down. However, such good stuff sometimes gets tangled in "Am I in touch with my emotions" maunderings. This is reasonably satisfactory, but doesn't break any new ground. In my scenario it's an interchangeable item.
When I was a child, non-fiction written for my age was usually unappealing. The sorts of things available nowadays are much better. The astonishingly productive Pierre Berton has so far churned out twenty-three slim volumes called Adventures in Canadian History that are well worth seeking. They probably would not be read voluntarily by any but an unusual child-they're not ravishingly well-illustrated-but children who are afflicted with a history project, or those who are read to, will be fortunate to be force-fed. Berton is expert with details. In Attack on Montreal, one of his books about the War of 1812, he describes the diet that decimates the American forces:
"The bread was worst. It contained bits of soap, lime, and human excrement. And no wonder! The bakers took their water from a stagnant corner of the lake, no more than three feet from the shore. The latrines were clustered only a few yards away. Naked men kneaded the dough. Nearby...two hundred corpses lay buried in no more than a foot of sandy soil."
Long may Berton continue to churn out these adventures. They will be featured in Canadian libraries for years to come.
Series books, a staple of childhood reading, are usually synonymous with junk. The Babysitter's Club. The Black Stallion books. Nancy Drew. Parents usually say, "At least they're reading." Professionals usually reply (depending on how much they've had to drink), "And if your child ate nothing but potato chips and chocolate bars would you say, `At least they're eating'?" Actually, adults should always sneer at junk reading because then the young enjoy them more; forbidden fruits should be forbidden. Not-bad series books do occasionally appear. Mystery at Lake Placid by Roy MacGregor, the first of the new Screech Owl series about a junior hockey team, is promising. MacGregor, an experienced hockey writer for adults, really knows whereof he writes. The parents are wonderful, ranging from insanely fanatical to splendidly prepared to sacrifice everything for their child's interest in hockey. He also captures beautifully the way it feels to play a game supremely well:
".that joyous sensation that comes only a few times in a season, when your skates are so comfortable and your skating so natural that there is no awareness of where skin ends and steel begins.."
This may well be too good to attract the kind of mindlessly loyal following that series books count on. On the other hand, The Mystery of the Gold Ring by James Heneghan, second in the O'Brien Detective Agency series has clumsy writing, an uninspired plot, no sense of place (it's set in Athens-imagine having no sense of place there) and puppet-like characters. Fortunately, I doubt whether anyone will notice it. By the time The Maestro is everywhere in Canada and The Night Voyagers is winning international awards, it will probably have been recycled into kitty-litter.
The ineptitude of Meyers' Creek by Connie Brummel Crook is painful partly because one can detect the emotional investment behind the writing. The author is a descendent of the United Empire Loyalist family that this book is written about. Reading it is like listening to someone describe at length the results of their genealogical research and concluding that their forebears are dead and boring. I predict that this won't be around for very long either.
Ask your contemporaries what the first adult book was that they read. Discounting pornography, chances are it will be humorous non-fiction. Gerald Durrell. Farley Mowat. Kenneth Wells's The Owl Pen. James Herriot. And perhaps in the future someone will say, "It was Dogless in Metchosin by Tom Henry." Written by a back-to-the-lander on Vancouver Island, this is laugh-aloud stuff, whether when dealing with chickens, or how to get accepted into rural communities, or what Henry's parents' dog used to do with spawned-out salmon (unmentionable). I hope it won't fade from view. Something like this is ideal for giving a child a taste of the delights in store, as progressive maturity brings more and more writing within reach.
For that's what it's all about. As much as it is an independent phenomenon, children's literature must also prepare readers for glories that lie ahead. Yet growth is an addition, not a substitution. Children shouldn't leave behind the pleasure of The Boys and Girls Section just because they are allowed into The Adults.
Alison Sutherland is a children's librarian.