No Boys in the Hall

by Cecil F. Beeler,
208 pages,
ISBN: 0670866423

North Star to Freedom:
The Story of the Underground Railroad

184 pages,
ISBN: 1895555906

A Place Not Home

192 pages,
ISBN: 1895555914

Post Your Opinion
Young Adults Who Cross Some Borders
by Bernadette Barber

There is a divide between contemporary children's and young adults' fiction. It is a literary version of the gap between the rich and the poor. On one shelf is a large and varied collection of creatively illustrated stories, reflecting the child's capacity for wonder and adventure. On another are a few texts with glossy pictures of teenagers on the cover. One shelf promises to open the doors and windows of the soul. The other promises the opposite. A similar divide is evident in the fare provided by television. For young children, there are richly imaginative explorations of self, family, society, earth, the universe. Then, it is as if a childhood bubble of illusion bursts on the rock of sexual and social dilemmas. Teenagers are presented with what is supposedly social reality.
Paradoxically, the child is drawn out of self and into the world as the first step on the road to maturity, while the young adult is only given a mirror for self-reflection.
The Stonehook Schooner (Key Porter, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth) draws the child into the labour and life of an Ontario stone-gatherer through story and illustration. Judith Christine Mills's pictures vividly convey her characters and their experiences. Intense dark blue and sharply defined waves, huge labouring men, a little boy staring mouth open through the driving rain and wind-for a few moments we are transported into a child's world. The chubby, cheeky child testing her mom's capacity to love her in Kady MacDonald Denton's Would They Love a Lion? (Thomas Allen, 32 pages, $21.95 cloth) pulls us engagingly into her life. Denton's illustrations playfully fade in and out of definition and colour. In this world, everything has a personality to express, from the green socks hanging toes-turned-out on the line to the gaily coloured quilts and blankets slung over the bed. The best story books for children combine an interesting story line with vivid, evocative illustrations to hook the reader's imagination.
Barbara Smucker's Selina and the Bear Paw Quilt (Key Porter, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth) tells the story of a Mennonite girl whose family is forced by its pacifism to flee to Canada during the Civil War. Janet Wilson's illustrations aptly convey the particular flavour of Mennonite family life and again give the reader the experience of other lives. These books recognize and cater well to the child's natural capacity to become inquisitively absorbed in people, things, and creatures in the great wide world.
Let's move now across the great divide between the worlds of children and young adults. Here A Place Not Home stands out from the many books that threaten to limit teenagers to popular Canadian social psychology. Eva Wiseman tells the fictional story of a persecuted Hungarian Jewish family's flight to Canada in 1956. A young girl, Amy, recounts her experiences of flight, budding romance, family life, and immigration. But despite the author's apparent and laudable intention of fostering Canadian multiculturalism, her story lacks the historical and social detail that would really bring it to life for her readers. She puts too little emphasis on evoking the unique social and cultural characteristics of Jewish Hungarians in 1956 and too much emphasis on making Amy just like any other girl, anywhere. As a result the readers is not transported anywhere in particular. This lack of cultural colour makes us wonder why Amy, the young girl through whose eyes the story is told, is rejected at her new Canadian school. There is nothing that we have been given so far to justify her only friend's explanation that she looks and thinks and moves differently from her classmates. She doesn't. We are as baffled as Amy. There seems to be nothing particularly Hungarian or Jewish about the new student.
In a children's book it is the illustrations that have the power to draw the child into other worlds; in a young adult's book it is the writing itself that must achieve this effect and evoke the "otherworldliness" of the subject-matter.
Wiseman's story strikes another unrealistic note. The immigrant parents hold down two jobs between them, take daily language classes, and retrain through night studies. A stressful situation at best. Yet in this book, except for a little tension when Mother applies for a job, the newly relocated family breezes through its trials with unbelievable emotional ease. The characters of this book are unique, quirky, and human enough to avoid the blandness of stereotype. It's a "nice" book, but it could be much better. If only Wiseman had aimed at telling a particular rather than an ideal immigrant family's story. It has a lovely heroine, a glimmer of romance, and at times a suspenseful turn of events, but it does not fulfill its potential in providing an opportunity for some real intercultural awareness. Perhaps in her attempt to make Amy appealing to all readers, Wiseman has somehow missed the boat.
My Blue Country, by O. R. Melling, also aims at encouraging Canadian multiculturalism, and also lacks realism. Jessica, who is barely seventeen, joins a group getting ready to take part in work projects and cultural life in Malaysia, with the hope of building bridges of understanding between nations. First, however, the young people undergo a rigorous encounter group experience, during which most of them discover and publicly open their various cans of worms. Once this is done, they supposedly reach a new level of maturity. In spite or because of this maturity, the best friend of our heroine then embarks on a course of sexual promiscuity, alcoholism, drug use, and other assorted forms of self-destructive behaviour. Jessica is concerned but uncritical. Off the group goes to Malaysia to "connect".
But there's no real connection. Instead the book describes a meeting between a stereotypically decadent if well-meaning West and a stereotypically "pure and shining" East. Jessica meets Ahmed, the young and handsome president of the National Federation of Islamic Youth in Malaysia. Not only is Ahmed good-looking, he is also good. In fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this representative of Islam. He is perfect. Understanding, gentle, and respectful of women; a strong family man, studious, chaste, faithful to his religion, and humorous, Ahmed (unintentionally) shames Jessica into living up to his standards. Under his bright gaze she dresses with more modesty, thinks more self-critically, and acts with greater dignity. And as readers we are hooked by the romantic dilemma, even while we are being misled by the stereotyping. If only O. R. Melling had connected Jessica with a real Muslim, not an ideal one.
In their desire to encourage young readers to value multiculturalism, both Eva Wiseman and O. R. Melling have idealized and generalized the cultures they deal with. The result is that they have really undermined their own ability to draw out genuine empathy for others from young adults.
North Star to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad does far more justice to its subject and its young audience. Using imaginative reconstruction of events as well as historical anecdotes, posters, photos, pictures, and commentary, Gena K. Gorrell gives a sensitive account of the growth and abolition of slavery in North America. The story she tells is, as she says, "an ugly one" but her purpose is not only to visit the painful past; it is also to show "justice overcoming injustice." We experience the misery and plight of the African slaves, but we also experience the awe-inspiring heroism of "men and women, black and white" who struggled to set wrongs right again. We put down this book with renewed awareness of wrongs committed and also with a sense of pride in the goodness of human life. Canadians in particular can be proud not only of individual acts of courage but also of our government's refusal to co-operate with the USA in returning escaped slaves.
Realism about human nature is valuable to readers of every age. It would be easy to slip into a stereotypical treatment of slavery. Gorrell avoids this trap. It is important for the battle against prejudice of any kind to note that not every black person worked against slavery and not every white person worked for it. The intricate tapestry of life during this period comes into clear focus through Gorrell's direct and detailed commentary. This is a book I would recommend to my own children.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us