The Golden Disk

by Bell Kilby,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0385254415

Songs Are Thoughts:
Poems of the Inuit

by Maryclare Foa, Neil Philip,
24 pages,
ISBN: 038525458X

Fearless Jake

by Margaret Haffner, Mark Thurman,
24 pages,
ISBN: 0590124242

Grandfather Drum

by Ferguson Plain,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0921827415

Freedom Child of the Sea

by Richardo Keens-Douglas, Julia Gukova,
24 pages,
ISBN: 1550373722

The Watcher

by Brenda Silsbe, Alice Priestley,
24 pages,
ISBN: 1550373846

Ladybug Garden

by Celia Godkin,
48 pages,
ISBN: 1550410830

The Sugaring-Off Party

by Jonathan London, Gilles Pelletier,
32 pages,
ISBN: 1895555841

Post Your Opinion
Children's Books - Good Intentions
by Rhea Tregebov

FOR PUBLISHERS AND AUTHORS, IT is hard to resist the temptation to make children's books didactic. For teachers and parents, it is hard to resist the opportunity for edification -- if not moralizing -- that children's books offer. This is especially the case with picture-books: since they are generally read by the adult to the pre-literate child, picture-books are much more subject to adult control than almost anything else in the child's life. But good intentions do not always amount to good literature, and I very much doubt that anything but good literature will have any genuine and lasting effect on a child's values and perceptions.

The storyteller Richardo Keens-Douglas clearly intends to instruct in Freedom Child of the Sea (Annick, 24 pages, $16.95 cloth, $5.95 paper), his third book for children. A fable of the horrors of the slave trade, Freedom Child of the Sea tells young readers the basics about its subject and offers a parable of hope and possibility as well. This is not, however, a dry political allegory but a magical tale fully imagined, told with subtlety, nuance, and power. It is not always easy for storytellers to transfer their oral skills to the page, but Keens-Douglas demonstrates how well the transition can be made. The illustrations by the Moscow artist Julia Gukova, while full of energy and colour, are perhaps too complex in composition for young readers. Nevertheless, this book is a must for homes, libraries, and schools looking for a strong, sensitive depiction of the central tragedy and drama of slavery.

Songs Are Thoughts: Poems of the Inuit (Doubleday, 28 pages, $19.95 cloth) was doubtless equally well-intentioned in concept by its editor, the folklorist Neil Philip, who provides an intriguing and readable introduction to the book. Songs Are Thoughts is a compilation of Inuit poems selected for their suitability for children. The poems are reprinted mostly from various publications in the 1920s and 1930s by the Danish ethnologist Knud Rasmussen. Unfortunately, only a few faint glimmers of the sparkle of the original shine through these abstruse, awkward translations. Whatever the process of moving from the original language through Danish and then English, the poems have suffered almost to the point of extinction. It would take a patient child indeed to delve deeply enough into these poems to find their hidden gems, despite the lovely accompanying illustrations by Maryclare Foa.

Grandfather Drum (Pemmican, 24 pages, $9.95 paper), by the Ojibwa artist and author Ferguson Plain, is far more successful in conveying the unique qualities of aboriginal culture to young readers. There is an immediacy and freshness to the story here that one cannot help but attribute to the author's closeness to, and depth of understanding of, his own culture. Grandfather Drum is set in a contemporary frame in which the grandfather tells the story of Nanaboozhoo (or Nanabush) and the Great White Owl. Plain is an eloquent storyteller who, like Keens-Douglas, makes a very smooth transition from the oral tradition to the written word. I found Plain's two-colour, somewhat cartoonlike illustrations not quite as engaging as his text. However, older and young readers alike will delight in this well-told tale.

Ladybug Garden (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 48 pages, $18.95 cloth), by the scientific illustrator Celia Godkin, features some lovely artwork depicting insect and plant life. The "story," however, is exposition disguised as narrative. Ladybug Garden has only a moral, and no interest in developing plot or character. A gardener makes the mistake of spraying his garden with pesticide. Godkin goes on to outline the ecological disaster that follows: helpful insects die or leave; harmful insects don't die but flourish; the garden sickens. The gardener learns the error of his ways thanks to a helpful, environmentally friendly neighbour and all is restored to order. What is missing is any entry into emotional engagement for the reader. I don't know whether this is particularly good ecology; it certainly isn't good literature.

Jonathan London's The Sugaring-Off Party (Lester, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth) is perfectly paired with illustrations by the Quebec folk painter Gilles Pelletier. Grandmere tells the story of her first sugaring-off to Paul, her young grandson. The tale is peppered with French phrases and delightful details of the cabane a sucre. The text is perhaps a bit long-winded for younger readers, but they'll probably be kept enthralled by Pelletier's vivid illustrations, which are full of the kind of details children love.

The balance between didacticism and story is maintained, but just barely, in Brenda Sflsbe's The Watcher (Annick, 24 pages, $15.95 cloth, $4.95 paper). Silsbe knows how to write for her young audience, and Alice Priestley's illustrations are nicely matched to the text. The Watcher is the story of George, who tends to stand apart from the other kids, more absorbed in observing than participating. Predictably, George turns out to be a hero, and what was seen as a social deficit by the other students comes to be accepted as an asset. While George's individuality is carefully demarcated by the narrative, the writing doesn't achieve the kind of depth that would make us feel along with George, experience from the inside out either his autonomy or pain. Priestley's likeable illustrations fill in some of the emotional gaps, and Silsbe's solid pacing and appropriate diction are spot on, so ultimately the book does make its quiet point.

Margaret Haffner has similar goals in Fearless Jake (Scholastic, 24 pages, $14.99 cloth), though she hasn't nearly as deft a touch with words as Silsbe. Jake is a daydreamer and his trek to school turns out to be one imagined adventure after another. Mark Thurman seems to have had a very good time with the illustrations here, which do add to the book's appeal. But Haffner's writing is pedestrian; she is overly fond of the utterly expected noun/verb or adjective/noun combination, a fondness that becomes increasingly irritating as the plot grinds on. And while George in The Watcher could have been more fully fleshed out, at least the reader is eventually able to empathize with his outsider status. Jake is indeed fearless; he never worries about anything. Consequently, we never worry for him. With so little conflict to engage, the reader may well prefer his or her own daydreams, despite Thurman's appealing artwork.

William Bell's The Golden Disk (Doubleday, 32 pages, $18.95 cloth), with delightful illustrations by Don Kilby, is a wonderful book. While her parents and family are celebrating the Chinese New Year in the city of Chong-qing, little Ming-yue wanders the deserted, narrow streets of her neighbourhood until she comes to a square where, for the first time, she can see the vista of the sky. Thrilled and bewildered by the golden disk she sees hanging there, Ming-yue struggles to learn what the shining globe might be. The adults she encounters, from a beggar to a weary shopkeeper to a lovesick student, are too self-absorbed, too enmeshed in their own problems, to explain to the little girl the truth of what she sees. Ming-yue is too clever and observant to accept their interpretations, however poetic and imaginative. At last it is Ming-yue's attentive and loving parents who reveal the truth. The Golden Disk is a delicately humorous and profound parable of knowledge as well as a sensitive portrayal of a child's perceptions and frustrations.


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