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The Ring Of Truth
by David Morley

THE TASK SEEMED simple enough. I was shown a pile of books and asked, "How old are your children?" "Five and seven;" I replied, "and there are some older kids on our street, too." Obviously it was the answer that Books in Canada wanted to hear (or at least it was an answer that sufficed), and I found myself bringing home about a dozen books to be reviewed en famille. The first thing I discovered, as we worked our way through the books, was that reviewing books is quite different from reading them and talking them over with your kids. We all had to look at them with a more critical eye than if we had just been reading for ourselves. The second thing that dawned on me was this: realism matters in children`s books. Perhaps "realism` isn`t quite the word, because of course fantasies are quite acceptable too, but the stories must be internally consistent. As we read the books, our children were able to accept that they could travel through time, that a boy could change into a wolf, and that the world was created from a few grains of sand held in a muskrat`s paw. But the moment that characters began to behave in ways that didn`t ring true, the kids were on to it in a flash. This was clearly seen in their different reactions to The Adventures of Nanabush (Doubleday, 96 pages, $12.95 paper), compiled by Emerson Coatsworth and David Coatsworth, and Rumpelstiltskin (Oxford University Press, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth), as retold by Dorothy Joan Harris. Nanabush is a curious, magical hero of ancient Ojibway legend. The tales in this book were retold by elders of the Rama Ojibway Band and transcribed by Emerson Coatsworth in the 1930s. They make wonderful read-aloud stories (which is not surprising, since that is how they survived over the generations), and are full of the power of legends. They deal with the origin of many things - how the porcupine got his quills, why foxes live in holes in the ground, and why Lake Winnipeg is so muddy. Although many of the tales are light-hearted, they have their harsh side, too. Nanabush`s lazy brother starves because he wont work. When another brother is killed by the Serpent People, Nanabush angrily seeks revenge and destroys their entire tribe. These unsentimental tales reflect the harsh life of the nomadic Ojibway people. Nanabush`s cunning and wit make things turn out right. There is no effort to try and make Nanabush seem more like us - he lives in a time of magic and wonder, and he is a supernatural being, too, who lives by his own rules. Dorothy Joan Harris`s Rumpelstiltskin does not enjoy the same sense of internal consistency. She portrays three-dimensional characters, but she has to leave them in a two-dimensional folk tale. The two don`t mix - and the kids spotted the flaws. Here is the trouble. The storyteller assures us that the king, who "was modest and hated all boasting;" is a kind and gentle man. Yet right away the author breaks the internal rules she has set up. The king`s hatred of boasting leads him to respond in a way that is not modest, kind, or gentle to the miller`s swaggering talk about his daughter`s prowess at the spinning wheel. The king locks up Elinore - a girl who has done him no wrong - and harshly tells her father that "Unless she can spin this straw into gold by morning, your daughter shall not return home again." "Why would Elinore ever want to marry that guy?" asked our son Alexander (who, after all, has heard Robert Munsch`s The Paperbag Princess, and knows that there are alternatives). Then he immediately lost interest in the story, and spent the rest of the read looking for the princess`s cat, hidden in Regolo Ricci`s ornate, almost baroque, drawings, which grace every page. There`s another lesson. In children`s books, art can make all the difference. As soon as our 10-year-old friend Glenn had glanced at a couple of the pictures in Roch Carrier`s The Boxing Champion (Tundra, 24 pages, $14.95 cloth), he excitedly exclaimed, "This is the book that comes after The Hockey Sweater. Look, it`s springtime in the same village." This is a worthy follow-up. The children of Ste. Justine gather for boxing matches in the summer kitchen of the Cote family, and we follow young Roch as he attempts to develop his muscles. His mother still tries to help out, but she doesn`t quite understand her sons world. Sheldon Cohen does, though. If anything, his illustrations for The Boxing Champion are better than they were for The Hockey Sweater - and in one of his action-filled pictures he even slips in the old Maple Leaf sweater that M. Eaton had sent to young Roch. Vladyana Krykorka`s drawings also made Baseball Bats for Christmas (Annick, 24 pages, $14.95 cloth), by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak, immediately interesting to our son Nicholas. He recognized the style from her work in Robert Munsch`s A Promise is a Promise, which made him interested in the book. And, despite a weak opening, Baseball Bats proved worthy of his interest. By the second sentence -`Arvaarluk was seven years old, and Arvaarluk was very asthmatic" - I was dismayed. I was sure that this was going to be a syrupy tale of an Inuit childhood. But as I read to my sons, we were all enchanted by the gentle memories of Repulse Bay in 1955, and the pleasures they shared at Christmas. Instead of the cloying sentimentality that early sentence had led me to expect, the story had the warm glow of nostalgia, and made us all smile at the end. A very different kind of book, but one that also relies heavily on its artwork, is The Time Traveler Book of New France (Durkin Hayes, 32 pages, $12.95 cloth), by Morris Wernicki. To be successful, a book of this nature must have good drawings, and our sons pored over the pages, which showed life in New France in 1700. Every little detail was of interest. The ice house on the seigneury, the weir to catch eels on the St. Lawrence River, the street fight outside a Quebec City tavern, and the lacrosse game outside the Huron village - all these drawings captivated our children and prompted excited discussions. This book provides a good introduction to the roots of modern Quebec something that is needed in these days of national tension. As you leaf through and study the pictures, and think of the very different way English Canada began, the notion of a distinct society seems self-evident and logical. My only complaint, history-wise, came from the sentence describing New France as "a world where Indian people and new settlers from Europe have to learn to live in a vast and hostile land." In fact, the Native people had learned how to survive thousands of years before, and their knowledge, shared with the first French settlers, saved the colony in those early years. Brendon and the Wolves (Oasis Press, 32 pages, $6.95 paper) is Allen Morgan`s 17th book for children. It is a haunting, emotional story about growing and changing, and finding your true home. It was one of those "read-it-again!` books. As soon as we finished reading it the first time, cuddled in our bed, the boys had to snuggle up closer and hear it again. Another young friend said dreamily, "It was all so realistic, even the changeling moon." Belief in the power of the moon is the key to this story. Brendon is a young boy who goes outdoor camping on the lawn of his family cottage. Before Brendon falls asleep, he wonders how it will be once he`s older, and if his parents will still love him as he changes and grows. As he lies in his tent, he hears the howls of the wolves, and steals off to look at them by the light of the changeling moon. "Then all at once, to Brendon`s surprise, the lonely howl he`d been keeping a secret deep down inside leaped up through his throat and flew out from his mouth. And the moment it did, in the blink of an eye, Brendon became a wolf!" Brendon spends a year with the wolves, until the changeling moon comes again. His wise mentor, the grey wolf, lets him return to his cottage and become human once again. This is a simple story, told with love and gentleness. Brendon changes, and his parents still love him. And that`s a tale our sons would happily listen to many times over. A book that does not seem destined to become a family favourite is The Maladjusted jungle (Oxford University Press, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth), by Hereward Allix. It advertises itself as "a hilarious collection of poetry" but our family found it hard to crack a smile. There are a dozen poems about animals with names like Vera the Vulture, Oswald the Ocelot, and Cecil the Centipede. My chief complaint about this as a read-aloud book (and poetry is an oral art), is that every poem had exactly the same rhythm. After a few pages I began to feel I was reading an endless epic, and the wandering attention of our sons - who did not find Graham Bardell`s illustrations too interesting, either - was the final nail in the coffin. I must admit that I thought Asha`s Mums (Women`s Press, 24 pages, $5.95 paper), by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse, would also be panned by our boys. There was yet another lesson I learned during this venture - don`t try to guess the children`s tastes. They really enjoyed this book. And their friends did, too. Asha is a little girl who has two mummies. One day, Asha takes home a consent form that parents must sign to let the children go on the school trip. Both her mummies sign the form, and Asha`s teacher doesn`t understand: "You cant have two mums;` she said briskly. "But I do! My brother and I have two mums;" I protested. Coreen and Judi were listening to me. "Take the form back home and have it filled out correctly;` Ms. Samuels said. "You can`t go on the trip if it isn`t." When I read that passage, I recalled my own memory of a teacher unwilling to accept my non-conforming reality and saying, "You must have made a mistake, David, your mother must be a nurse, not a doctor:" My boys had no such reminiscences - they just wanted to know if Asha would get to go on the trip or not. Happily enough, she does go. And what`s more, like Baseball Bats for Christmas, the last page of Asha`s Mums left us with gentle laughter on our lips.

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