Everybody's Favourites:
Canadians Talk about the Books That Changed Their Lives

by Arlene P. Rae,
240 pages,
ISBN: 0670870803

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Children`s Books
by Annette Goldsmith

Like those Canadian Library Association posters that show celebrities posing with a special book, Everybody's Favourites appeals to readers' curiosity about how books inspired someone famous. Arlene Perly Rae, a prominent literacy advocate, has given promoters of children's books and family literacy a wonderful tool in this collection of brief testimonials about the power of books in people's lives. She includes some good advice for parents in directing children's reading, drawing on her experience as a popular children's book columnist for the Toronto Star. The book is also an accessible history of children's literature, though this is not evident from the title. Finally, it offers the nostalgic delight of remembering one's own childhood favourites.

Rae mailed a letter to hundreds of famous Canadians, inviting their anecdotes about "a book that worked you up, stirred your soul or changed your life." More than 150 responded, mostly from the arts, politics, and sports. Perhaps this is a simple result of who answered the letter, but the entries don't reflect that much cultural diversity. This is not to say different voices are not included; they are just not numerous.

This handsomely designed book is divided into ten chapters, (mainly) by genre. Rae starts each chapter with an historical overview. Personal accounts of profound childhood or adolescent literary experiences follow. (The organization is telling: the focus is on the books rather than on the celebrities.) Recurring themes include the physical pleasure of the book-as-object; influence on career choice; a model for life lessons; the sometimes secret, sometimes shared passion for a book or author; and the redemptive power of story. A few contributors talk about the importance of story-telling, and many more about the joy of listening to an enthusiastic reader. (References to Disney print and film versions of well-loved books are all negative.)

Such a collection inevitably contains some entries that are less interesting than others, as well as a certain amount of repetition-only a reviewer would intentionally read it straight through. It's a browser's book, so the red ribbon bookmark is a nice touch. One can dip into it at random, or look up a favourite author, but I think the best way to read it is to take one chapter at a time, in no particular order. The chapter that describes the extraordinary influence of L. M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon features particularly moving and eloquent essays by Alice Munro, Budge Wilson, Val Ross, and Jane Urquhart. The "Words into Action" chapter, in which readers recount becoming politically aware via books, also stands out; the pieces by the former Yukon premier Tony Penikett, Cecil Foster, Andrew Moodie, Claire Mackay, and Bob Rae shine.

Other highlights: Susan Swan's knowing (but not cynical) take on The Secret Garden; Judy Stoffman's affecting memoir involving The Little Mermaid; the vision of the passionate young Arthurian Howard Engel clad in a home-made suit of armour; the unmistakable voice of Clyde Gilmour, recommending a musical theme for his beloved A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; Bill Cameron's instant and poignant identification with Otter's lost son in The Wind in the Willows; Timothy Findley's paean to Wild Animals I Have Known; Bernice Thurman Hunter rhapsodizing about her soul-mate, Francie, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Marian Fowler's testing potential friends by asking if they are Jane Austen fans (and they'd better say yes); Julie Johnston's discovery of The Mill on the Floss "by some guy named George Eliot"; the teenaged Tomson Highway reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame by candlelight; the ten-year-old John Polanyi indulging in "profligate reading" of an early Churchill autobiography; and the inimitable Mordecai Richler, seduced by the German hero of All Quiet on the Western Front rather than by a girlfriend. Teachers and librarians are always looking for brief read-aloud selections-well, here's the perfect collection to initiate a discussion about books and reading.

Books in books in books.Janet Lunn acknowledges her debt to The Secret Garden by making it the favourite book of one of her own heroines. There are romantic connections too: Sandra and Richard Gwyn discovered a shared passion for The Story of Ping, Arthur and Cilla Kent for that of the daredevil pilot Douglas Bader. Janet and Louis Applebaum courted over a copy of Leaves of Grass. Some of the favourites are satisfyingly predictable. It seems only appropriate that Ripley's Believe It or Not! inspired John Robert Colombo. Mark Tewksbury, a former Olympic athlete and now a motivational speaker, credits Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! with developing his ability to pursue a dream.

Not all the entries are laudatory. What if you re-read that childhood favourite and find you don't much like it? George Bain reprimands Rae for prompting his disappointing second look at Richard Halliburton's The Royal Road to Romance: "In the re-reading I found myself occasionally muttering that this guy was not altogether the free spirit I admired at eleven or twelve, but a well-off young guy with connections." His conclusion? "It's not just true that you can't go back. It's disturbing to try." On returning to The Water-Babies, the writer Charlotte Gray was "appalled" at what she found. Alex Tilley's single plaintive sentence says it all: "Oh God, why do the Bobbsey Twins keep springing to mind!"

The book concludes with a generous thirty pages of unannotated book lists, bibliographies both personal and canonical. The chronology of historically important children's books is similar to a reading list for a university course in children's literature. Ditto for the list of early children's books by and about Canada. Rae's personal lists of recent Canadian favourites in English cover younger readers (100), older readers (100), non-fiction (42), poetry (19), series (11), and short stories (24). Browsing these lists is like snooping at a well-read friend's bookshelves. The inclusion of the Morningside children's book panel choices (Canadian and international, grouped by age) from November 1992 to May 1997 is another bonus. Rae rounds out the recommendations with lists of the winners of major Canadian, American, and international awards (in that order). This is a very handy section but could have been improved with a quick reference to The Children's Literature Web Guide Site (http://www.ace.ucalgary.ca/~dkbrown/), which updates such lists, hosts book discussions, and provides many other links.

There are a few problems. Rae's own writing relies too often on overused reviewer's adjectives (dazzling, stunning, spectacular). I found a number of typos, mostly of names. In her discussion of Native and Inuit stories, Rae mentions Richardo Keens-Douglas, who to the best of my knowledge does not tell such stories. Alice Kane's The Dreamer Awake is in the poetry rather than the short story list. And though the cursive headings are otherwise attractive, the ornate upper case makes acronyms difficult to read.

Everybody's Favourites will surely prompt readers to reflect on their own literary epiphanies. I identified most closely with the experience of Adrienne Clarkson, who fell under the spell of Maurice Sendak's Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life, as an adult. I recognized myself in Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius at the tender age of twenty-five. Buy or borrow Everybody's Favourites for the read-aloud stories, biographical snippets, historical commentary, and especially for the book lists and recommendations. After all, 'tis the season. Give some lucky person, young or old, a life-changing book. 

Annette Goldsmith is a Toronto children's librarian and editor of the electronic journal, The Looking Glass: New perspectives on children's books (http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/~easun/looking glass).


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