Jean Little is an award-winning, natural-born storyteller with more than twenty books to her credit. Her latest offering, What Will the Robin Do Then? Winter Tales
is a collection of twenty-two poems and eleven short stories that are grouped very loosely according to a winter theme.
Written over a span of many years, the stories feature children faced with the challenge of coming to terms with a change in their family structure or situation. Divorce, adoption, blended and mixed-race families, the death of a parent or sibling figure prominently.
The first story in the book, "Goodbye Tizzy", strikes me as the strongest and most focused. It's a sensitive portrait of a young girl's emotional last day with the yellow Lab she must give up to be trained as a guide dog. (For those who don't know, Jean Little is blind and has had guide dogs for many years. She wrote this story as a tribute to whomever gave her own dogs love and attention before they came to her.)
"What Will the Robins Do Then?", by contrast, is too densely packed with ideas and emotions for a short story. We are introduced to a long-suffering boy hero: his mother has died; his father is a drunk; Dad's third live-in girlfriend is leaving (with her disabled daughter) because the old man beat her; Dad is more concerned about his other son who has left town; and the boy helps deliver a package of used winter clothing to refugee children. My adult self says, "Enough already!", but the nine-year-old I was in the fifties would have lapped it up and asked for more.
Another December story is "The Portable Christmas", about twin children of divorced parents who are tired of being shifted around to the homes of various relatives, especially on the holidays, and who run away to Great Grandfather's farm to let the others know they want to enjoy this special day in one place. This story works nicely: it is fast-paced, amusing, and shows the kids taking creative action in an attempt to change a disagreeable situation.
However, another Christmas tale, "A Mantle of Praise", about a little girl who lives in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth, is not as successful. While emotionally appealing, it fails to offer a convincing sense of place or time, and some of the language seems anachronistic and forced.
An insightful fifth story, "Somebody's Girl", is about a girl who suffers great loss when her mother is killed in a car accident and she herself is injured so that she'll never dance again. At first bitterly resentful of her sympathetic grandmother who comes to live with the family, she gradually comes to accept that the woman is hurting too.
The poems in this book, while not necessarily all addressed to children, are for the most part well crafted and, by turns, amusing, moving or delightfully inventive. The body language of a shadow in "Me and My Shadow" and, my favourite, the description of rain on a toad's back in "Rain" (written when Little was still in her teens) are sure to win some young converts to the poetic outlook on life.
There is an element of old-fashioned sentimentality in a lot of the pieces in this collection. At its best, it imbues the stories and poems with a comforting, timeless quality. However, unchecked by a diligent editor, it can tend towards the maudlin or the predictable. Although this book will no doubt be widely read by Jean Little's many fans, it will be the mature, leaner prose of her novels that will sustain her reputation as one of the icons of Canadian children's literature.
Mary Roycroft Ranni is a freelance copy editor/proofreader with an interest in children's literature. She decided to reinvent her childhood in graduate school after being introduced to Winnie the Pooh.