The Princess of Spadina

by Ramabai Espinet, Veronica Sullivan,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0920813666

Lonely Seagull

by Book, Stewart,
ISBN: 0921254407

Big Little Dog

by Ruurs, Houde,
ISBN: 0921254466

Out on the Ice in the Middle of the Bay

by Peter Cumming, Alice Priestley,
32 pages,
ISBN: 1550372769

Pegasus & Ooloo-Moo-Loo

by Wendy Orr, Ruth Ohi,
32 pages,
ISBN: 1550372785

Don't Be Scared, Eleven

by Richard Thompson, Eugenie Fernandes,
24 pages,
ISBN: 1550372866

The King & the Tortoise

by Tololwa Mollel, Kathy Blankley,
32 pages,
ISBN: 189555540X

Post Your Opinion
Children's Books - Correct Expressions
by David Homel

SOMEWHERE along the line, in the cause of political correctness, publishers, authors, and illustrators have forgotten that old pedagogical chestnut: children (or anyone, for that matter) learn best when they're having fun. One of the elements that lets children learn through reading is naturalness. If a book is to deliver a certain point of view, it should flow from the story and/or pictures themselves.

I pity the poor illustrators of Ramabai Espinet's The Princess of Spadina (Sister Vision, 32 pages, $8.95 paper) and Wendy Orr's Pegasus and Ooloo Mooloo (Annick, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth, $4.95 paper): their art is stripped of its function, since the texts are so relentlessly preachy. In The Princess of Spadina it's not enough to show a multicultural scene; we have to be told in painful detail where every character's parents are from, something that big-city kids (like mine) take for granted. As The Princess wanders through its plot (the story is for younger kids but the text is way too long for them), during which three little girls all named Claudia disarm a robber with the help of the empowering Princess, the fidget factor is bound to take over, and unfortunately, Veronica Sullivan's pictures will not stem the fidgeting.

In Pegasus and Ooloo Mooloo, it's not enough to show an active, acrobatic girl and a dreamy, violin, playing boy; we have to be told that the two characters are this way. So what's the use of Ruth Ohi's illustrations? In this book, there's an attempt to create suspense, as two circus bad guys try to capture the pony that the friends have discovered in the forest. But the plot never takes off, since the bad guys give up without the children ever knowing that they and their animal friend were in danger. Their pony is saved - but through no initiative of their own. In the "correct" school of children's books, the characters often have no adventures or secret lives of their own; they are there only to carry the crushing weight of the adult world's message.

Jimmy, in Margriet Ruurs's Big Little Dog (Penumbra, 32 pages, $8.95 paper), with art by Marc House, does have an intense inner life: his mission is to make up for being short. "It's what's inside that counts," his parents keep telling him, but Jimmy, like all of us, needs something from the outside world to prove that his lack of size is no drawback. The story is set in the Yukon, and there Jimmy is given a sled dog that, like him, is small in stature. But he trains his dog Denali for the prestigious One-Dog Pull contest, and though Denali comes in second, he does manage to beat other, bigger dogs, thus earning Jimmy recognition in his community. This is a positive-minded story for the eight- to 12-year-old range. If only the author did not repeat "It isn't the size that counts" so much, the story would probably be more effective.

Peter Cumming's Out on the Ice in the Middle of the Bay (Annick, 32 pages, $15.95 cloth, $5.95 paper) does not, mercifully, suffer from the correctness syndrome. Leah, the Northern girl, wanders out on the ice, and there makes friends with a polar bear cub, Baby Nanook. The friendship is beyond words, and based solely on the fact that both are still young. Meanwhile, Leah's father and Nanook's mother discover the pair, and rush out onto the ice to defend their offspring. The parents separate their children, violence between bear and man is barely avoided, and Leah is safely returned to her family. But, just briefly, she inhabited a private world different from that of her parents. If only Alice Priestley's illustrations complemented the story better, we'd have a masterpiece. The pictures are attractive in themselves, and Priestley manages to give colour to the Arctic, but they do not follow the progress of the suspense as Leah and the baby bear meet; they are in a world of their own, independent of the story.

The King and the Tortoise (Lester, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth), by Tololwa M. Mollel, is a retelling of a Cameroon folk tale about a king who gives his subjects a challenge: "Your task is to make me a robe of smoke. Anyone who can accomplish this will be declared the cleverest creature in the world." The higher-profile animals - the hare, fox, leopard, and elephant - try first, but they all fail. Then the slow-footed tortoise comes forward and, needless to say, triumphs by outwitting the king by means of a word-game. I appreciated the ending: the king, instead of admitting defeat, declares his happiness at having the two cleverest creatures in the world in his kingdom: the tortoise and, of course, himself. With their taste for word-games, the king and the tortoise are the perfect pair.

As for Kathy Blankley's illustrations, they are beige; the background of every spread features the same colour. Fortunately, the sameness is broken by the borders, which, though identical, contribute a different hue. Borders seem to be popular in this crop of books; Out on the Ice has them running along the bottom of each page. They are an attractive design element, but to go beyond that limited role, they should have something to do with the story on a plot level.

The title of The Lonely Seagull (Penumbra, 32 pages, $8.95 paper), by Rick Book, says it all. Loneliness is vanquished by companionship in this sweet tale. A nameless seagull is flying alone over the Atlantic, looking for a friend.

He spots an ocean liner with a boy on it who feeds him bread, but distance separates them. Later, the bird discovers a fancy bottle that gives him an eerie feeling. He feels there is something inside, and is not disappointed: when he drops the bottle onto some rocks, out pops a lovely genie (the cascading curls, the bare midriff and feet are bound to become an icon in some boys' imaginations). She gives him one wish - the bird wants to have a friend just like the boy from the ocean liner. And sure enough, the genie changes him into a wooden seagull mobile hanging in the boy's room. Marie Stewart's pictures illustrate the text very literally, without adding a further dimension, but I suspect this is the publisher's intention, since it's also the case with the other Penumbra offering here.

Richard Thompson's Don't Be Scared, Eleven (Annick, 24 pages, $14-95 cloth, $4.95 paper) is the only book without a moral. It's just a story for the hell of it, with an open-ended conclusion. Jesse is being towed along in her little cart by her parents, who are on a bicycle camping trip with her. Along for the ride is Eleven, Jesse's stuffed elephant doll, who is made very nervous by the trip, especially some of the cliff-side traits. When Eleven gets nervous, he eats (shades of adult behaviour). He swells up bigger and bigger until he can actually carry Jesse on his back. The book ends with Eleven having achieved truly monstrous size, after being frightened by some noises in the woods and subsequently discovering a bag of marshmallows. Eugenie Fernandes's pictures are lively, with the various animals encountered along the way getting into the action. After the relentlessly instructive nature of some of these books, it's fun to just relax with a story featuring a bulimic elephant.

Correction: Our review of Eileen Pettigrew's Desdemona Saves the Day (March) quoted a price of $13.95; it has been reduced to $9.95.


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