The joys of a bountiful season

Val Ross December 19 1983

The joys of a bountiful season

Val Ross December 19 1983

The joys of a bountiful season


Val Ross

With fingers snapping and bodies twitching, the audience of 150 at the poetry reading eerily resembled a crowd in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse a generation ago. And the poet in the centre looked the part of the archbeatnik, with his wispy goatee and Coke-bottle glasses. But the setting last month was Growing Minds, a Winnipeg children’s bookstore; the appreciative participants were preschoolers who had come to hear Canada’s four-eyed Father Goose, Dennis Lee, read selections like Bundlebuggy Boogie from his new collection, Jelly Belly. The exuberant scene repeats itself wherever Lee reads, across Canada and the United Kingdom (where the Scottish publisher Blackie & Sons has simultaneously released his new book). Since its November release, 36,000 copies of Jelly Belly have been sold in Canada; already through its second Canadian print run, the collection of nonsense verse is comfortably in sixth place on a national best-seller list.

That feat used to be rare for a children’s book, but never for Lee.

His earlier collections,

Garbage Delight, Nicholas Knock and the alltime Canadian children’s favorite, Alligator Pie, have together sold more than a quarter of a million copies in Canada alone. Currently, a stage version of Alligator Pie is playing at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre—

“an authentic Canadian theatre classic for kids,” in the opinion of The Toronto Star’s drama critic,

Gina Mallet. And as for Lee’s verses, they now keep company with the Three Bears and Peter Rabbit in a generation’s collective culture.

Jelly Belly is the most prominent but by no means the only treat from the astonishingly

rich treasure trove of juvenile arts and letters that is pouring across and out of Canada. This holiday season there are records from such best-selling children’s artists as Raffi, Sharon, Lois & Bram and Fred Penner. There are six different children’s magazines, the best-known of which is Owl. With 80,000 subscribers in Canada and 20,000 abroad, Owl is currently poised to swoop into the U.S. market.

Energy: Most of all there are books— a record 150 new Canadian titles for children in 1983. They range from Lee’s inspired doggerel to beautifully produced picture books which some adults understandably may want to withhold from eager sticky fingers. The creative energy of Canadian children’s publishing is all the more remarkable because it is flourishing in an age of marketing, when print is sometimes a diversion between television rights and toystore sales. Best of all, children are reading the new books avidly. “Across the country, little kids share a common knowledge,” says Kit Pearson, a Burnaby, B.C., children’s librarian who has helped to introduce Books for Ba-

bies programs' in libraries in British Columbia and Ontario. “They know the same Dennis Lee rhymes, the same Raffi songs. I see a real preschool culture in Canada.”

One moving force behind that trend is the desire of middle-class parents to instil a love of reading in their children. Today, books are stateof-the-art tools of modern parenting and they are reaching more children earlier than ever before. While some of the stories themselves are as steeped in parental values as Victorian cautionary tales, what is most valued in contemporary writing for children is variety and the free play of imagination. Once, a few towering figures dominated the

world of children’s literature—Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen, A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss. Now parents are searching beyond the borders of NeverNever Land. “Parents’ notions of what and when children should read have changed dramatically,” noted Virginia Davis, executive director of the Toronto-based Children’s Book Centre, a national support group for juvenile publishing. “Without question there are more books around which tell how important it is to stimulate youngsters with books.” Added Mary Rubio, coeditor of the academic journal Canadian Children’s Literature, published at the University of Guelph in Ontario: “It is a worldwide phenomenon. Child psychologists and writers have told the rest of us that what kids read is terribly important.”

Arresting: The current season’s inventory offers more choice and better quality than ever. There are such gorgeously illustrated fairy tales as Laszlo Gal’s The Little Mermaid and Wence Horai’s Miller’s Helper. There are exquisite, original story books, such as

Zoom At Sea, the tale of a peak-capped kitten navigator by Tim Wynne-Jones, a former Seal award-winner, illustrated by Ken Nutt, and Yeah, Fm A Little Kid, by Darryl Borden, with quirky collages by Lynn Smith. So intricate and arresting are Richard Pelham’s pencil drawings for Look! The Land is Growing Giants—a Canadian folk legend retold by Joan Finnigan—that they are currently on exhibit at the National Library in Ottawa. As well, the prolific and popular Gordon Korman, a 20-year-old writer from Montreal whose sales now total 450,000 worldwide, has brought out Bugs Potter Live at Nickaninny— Potter’s most gruelling test to date. The young rock ’n’ roll addict must survive two weeks in the wilderness with his family, cut off from his daily fix of radio and his drums. Owl Magazine/Golden Press’s new line of natural science books are all handsomely illustrated; four are tiny, designed to fit into pintsize pockets—handy references for questions like “How many trillion raindrops are there in a thundercloud?” (Answer: six.)

But the most potent of this season’s offerings are the picture books intended for preschoolers. Significantly, Lee has aimed Jelly Belly at his youngest readership ever, supplanting the speculative verses and ballads of previous works with baby-bouncing rhymes, playground incantations and short, sweet silliness: “Up in North Ontario/A barber met a bear-io/And cut his curly hair-io/Up in North Ontario.” Guelph, Ont., writer Robert Munsch, who has already sold 600,000 copies of his previous nine books worldwide, has unleashed another, David's Father, delightfully illustrated by Michael Martchenko. It deftly describes the view from three feet, six inches as Julie meets a new neighbor, David, and his dad. For her, David’s father is an ugly giant, given to inexplicable behavior. He eats octopus and chocolate-covered bricks but he can also act with sudden kindness. Already, Munsch’s most demanding critics are praising the book. Siubhan Drinnan, 8, of Yellowknife, observes: “I liked it. It was funny. But the part about the octopus was yeeech.”

Tundra Books, the Montreal-based press, is pursuing an even younger market with a second series of Baabee books. Baabees are fat, laminated cardboard, wordless objects for tiny babies to maul and practise focusing their eyes upon. “We recommend them for fivemonth-olds,” says Tundra’s founder, May Cutler. “But we found that we were selling them to parents of two-month-olds.”

Awards: Cutler’s innovative talent and high standards have won a score of international citations and graphics awards for Tundra Books. Led by Tundra and Annick Press, Robert Munsch’s internationally aggressive publisher, many Canadian children’s presses are now setting up shop at book fairs in the United States, Bologna, Italy, and Frankfurt, West Germany, and invariably carrying off more honors and lucrative republishing contracts. Greey de Pencier Ltd. is copublishing the Owl/Golden line of natural science titles with Whitman Golden of New York, the world’s largest distributor of children’s books. Annick Press began issu-

ing two books a year from cofounder Anne Millyard’s Toronto basement in 1975. By the end of this year that output will have risen to 15 original picture books. Said Millyard enthusiastically: “We are making

money and we are expanding; 29 per cent of our sales this year were to the United States. We are growing by leaps and bounds.”

As a result of those major marketing breakthroughs, books by Canadian authors this season will bulge in stockings and lie beribboned under Christmas trees in Britain, the United States, West Germany,

Sweden, Mexico and the Netherlands. In February the prestigious U.S. children’s literature journal, The Horn Book, will launch a column to bring news of Canadian children’s books to U.S. librarians and educators. The columnist, Sarah Ellis, who is also co-ordinator of children’s services for the North Vancouver District Library, explained, “It occurred to The Horn Book’s editors that Canadian children’s publishing was becoming very important—in some areas, world-class.”

Blooming: Ten years ago international interest would have been unimaginable. It was 1974 when Lee’s Alligator Pie first crept into the quiet domain of Anne of Green Gables—and suddenly a desolate landscape was transformed into a blooming garden from the other side of the Looking Glass. There was Elliot Kravitz, the porcupine hero of Hug Me, Patti Stren’s best-selling picture book. In Kathy Stinson’s Red is Best, there was a little girl whose obsession with the color red led her to believe that when she wore red barrettes her hair was happy, and scarlet stockings helped her to jump higher. B.C. author Sue Ann Alderson’s independent young heroine, Bonnie McSmithers, gave her mother the dithers. Science fiction writer Monica Hughes’s child heroes of the future saved their worlds from nefarious computers and dust particles that threatened another ice age. And in Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar, winner of the 1982 Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year Award, a Canadian girl travels back in time to participate in the American Civil War.

At first, the energy seemed paradoxi-

cal: in the 1970s classrooms were growing emptier and demographers reported a baby bust. But Lee, now 44, and his contemporaries knew something about their own experience that the demographers had missed: planned parenthood enabled new parents like themselves (Lee has three children: Kevyn, 20, Hilary, 17 and Julian, 12) to lavish more attention on their offspring.

The year of Alligator Pie’s irreverent debut was also the year that Judy Sarick, a classmate of Lee’s from the University of Toronto, ignored the advice of friends and opened the Children’s Book Store in Toronto—the first store in Canada to deal solely in children’s books. Today Sarick boasts that her 2Vi-storey juvenile print wonderland is North America’s largest and competes with 37 other Canadian outlets devoted totally to the sale of volumes brimming with bright pictures and big print. In Edmonton the children’s stock of the seven-year-old Village Bookshop proved to be so successful that the store was able to open an adult bookstore a few doors away. Woozles, Halifax’s children’s bookstore, has doubled its sales since last year and has 900 subscribers on its mailing list. The retailer who may have the biggest dream of the lot is Judith Drinnan, manager of the Yellowknife Book Cellar. Drinnan is waiting for word from the National Book Festival about her grant application to fund Words on the Wing—her flying bookstore which has already flown rescue missions to bibliophiles, parents and children alike, in Rankin Inlet and Frobisher Bay.

Tastes: As the retail outlets have grown, so has this strangest of literary markets,where the actual consumers of books have little money and often cannot even read. But they can and do communicate their tastes. Janis Ostermann, 7, of North Vancouver, said: “I like books about Vancouver because it

makes me smarter to know about home, where I live. And I like Bonnie McSmithers because she makes up rhymes and so do I. And I like the man who wrote Garbage Delight, but I can’t remember his name.”

But Ostermann’s parents, who are both about 40, are familiar with the writer’s name because they are members of the first generation to receive a thorough education in Canadian literature. Those parents are seeking books that tell their children about their own time and place—often by the same authors who provide it in adult writing. A significant proportion of the CanLit authors have turned their pens to books for the young, including Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, Gabrielle Roy’s Cliptail and Margaret Laurence’s The Olden Days Coat (which Atlantis Films has adapted for a CBC TV Christmas Day special). “It is a trickle-down effect,” notes Davis of the Children’s Book Centre. “Parents who grew up reading Atwood will pick up Atwood’s Up in the Tree for their children.” Best seller Robert Munsch admits his debt to major adult writers. “Lee and Richler paved the way for unknowns like me,” he says.

Fans: As with adult literature, strong government support nourishes children’s publishing in Canada. Canada Council grants are crucial, as is the work of the Children’s Book Centre, which is partially funded by Ottawa. With a modest budget of $300,000 a year (the centre generates 30 per cent itself through the sale of its author kits and educational materials), the centre coordinates a National Children’s Book Festival, sends a newsletter to 55,000 schools and libraries and supports Canadian publishers at international children’s book fairs. Evidently, the efforts are paying off: one million schoolchildren tried the book-related projects in the centre’s festival this year, and 40,000 fans have attended reading tours by authors across Canada. Says Trudy Carey, manager of Halifax’s Woozles: “Today, if a Canadian book is good, it will make it all across the country.”

At the centre of the children’s culture network stands Lee, like a master puppeteer. “The subversive element is there,” admits Lee, laughing. “When I started reading nursery rhymes to my own children, I realized the details—the dobbins and pipers and pence—were no longer home ground. And I began to wonder: is Mother Goose an imperialist conspiracy?”

It was inevitable that Lee turned what he calls his “citizenly” concerns to action. He grew up in Etobicoke, a sub-

urb of Toronto, with an early ambition to become a United Church minister and with the Prince of Wales scholarship for the highest Grade 13 marks in Ontario. But he could not cloister himself in his ivory tower. After switching from theology to an English MA thesis on Ezra Pound, published in 1965, Lee became involved with the founding of Rochdale College, the University of Toronto’s controversial experiment in alternate education. Mixing with the U.S. draft dodgers and hippies that Rochdale harbored further sharpened the social conscience that earlier might have led him to the pulpit. The protests he

joined were municipal—the movement to stop the Spadina expressway—and national: he picketed Ryerson Press to protest its sale to a U.S. publisher, McGraw Hill. In 1967 Lee helped to launch the House of Anansi publishing company, shepherding a generation of such writers as Graeme Gibson, Marian Engel and Matt Cohen into print. By the early 1970s he already stood at the forefront of Canadian letters (his adult poetry book Civil Elegies won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1972). For a committed nationalist like Lee it was of vital cultural importance to bring hockey sticks and Eaton’s trucks to his children’s bedtime nursery rhymes.

Lee has fulfilled that aim magnificently—as confirmed by his sales fig-

ures and the chants of “Sasquatch from Saskatchewan” and “Torontosaurus Rex” which ring from Canada’s playgrounds. Explains his publisher, Macmillan of Canada’s Douglas Gibson: “In a strange way we are now colonizing the Brits. British kids are learning to pronounce words in Lee’s poems like Chicoutimi. ” Children would spurn Lee’s sugar-coated medicine if they suspected that he was somehow manipulating them. But Lee has never allowed his citizenly concerns to overshadow his artistic ones. His poems have a life of their own, and if Kalamazoo, Mich., offers a better rhythm than Calabogie, Ont., Lee will use it. Says Lee, who works through as many as 20 revisions on a single chil-

dren’s poem: “I start by getting in touch with a whole series of kids inside me. When I write something from my adult conception of what interests me, it will be condescending or dull. I have to find the child and follow his nose. At the same time, I must use my adult resources. Simplicity takes great craft.” Anarchist: It is Lee’s craftsmanship that sustains adults through a 10th read-aloud of his children’s work, long after a duller text would have dwindled to a mere cacophony. The same deft intelligence that unfolds in Lee’s adult, meditative poetry—his elegy, The Death of Harold Ladoo, explores layers of guilt and remorse—accompanies the reader in the children’s poetry. In Garbage Delight's The Fly-Nest, a fiveyear-old speculates on what to do with

his trapped pet fly; in Jelly Belly, Annie and Ernie McGilligan Spock embark on a baffling tricycle trip around the block. His roles as civic-minded scholar and gentle anarchist apparently occupy Lee’s middle-aged, pipe-smoking person simultaneously and compatibly. The same man who now heads McClelland and Stewart’s ambitious Canadian poetry publishing program once rode through a gang of giggling children atop a garbage truck to promote his Garbage Delight. And Lee the literary critic, who has written an intense study of writers Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje, also pens the enchanting lyrics for CBC TV’s Fraggle Rock, including songs for a gentle, serious Fraggle minstrel who bears an uncanny resemblance to Lee himself.

Score: Lee’s lyricism is present in all his writing. American poet Denise Levertov has said of Lee’s adult poetry: “More consistently than those of anyone else I know, the poems of Dennis Lee manifest an awareness of the poem as a form of musical score.” Vancouver’s Sheila Egoff, author of a major study of Canadian children’s literature, The Republic of Childhood, says that the same quality is the source of Lee’s appeal to the young. “Children may not remember the name Dennis Lee,” she said, “and they certainly won’t care that he is a Canadian, but his sense of rhythm and rhyme, his musicality, his craftsmanship have put much of his work into the national consciousness.”

Lee’s colleagues in Canadian _ children’s writing may have I sprung from less highbrow liter1 ary origins than his but they are £ often no less inspired. Robert 5 Munsch has become so wellp known that children who cannot read his name are able to identify his books by his bearded, grinning photo on the back cover. Like Lee, Munsch is both clownlike and serious. A former Jesuit who now teaches family studies at the University of Guelph, Munsch, 38, has been making up stories for kids since 1973, when he left the priesthood to work in a day care centre. His publisher has at times simply listened to Munsch as he talked and printed the best stories. Most are ridiculous shaggy-dog tales. In The Paper Bag Princess, the heroine rescues Prince Ronald from the dragon, only to discover that he is a hypercritical dandy who objects to her singed clothes and battle scars. Finally she tells him, “Ronald, you are a bum” and lives happily ever after without marrying him. Still, the whimsical stories reflect the pacifist and feminist values of Pitts-

burgh-born Munsch (he was a war resister who came to Canada in 1975). He now shares his income, job and childrearing responsibilities with his wife, Ann (they have two adopted children).

Like Munsch and Lee, most of the major children’s writers are superb performers of their own work—perhaps because writing children’s books is so closely related to the intimate task of entertaining their own children or rediscovering the child in themselves. Guelph’s Jean Little, whose From Anna has sold 110,000 copies worldwide, has been known to silence her occasionally unruly young audiences by simply removing her plastic eye. When Gordon Penrose of Toronto goes on the road to promote Owl’s Dr. Zed’s Brilliant Book of Science Experiments and Dr. Zed ’s Dazzling Book of Science Activities, his audiences dress him in a mad scientist lab coat and horn-rimmed glasses and help him brush his hair until it stands on end. Then Penrose, playing Zed, shoots balloons around the room while explaining the principle of jet propulsion and illustrates Bernouli’s principle—the faster air moves, the less pressure per unit volume—by suspending Ping-Pong balls in mid-air and blowing up at them through soft-drink straws.

The success of Canadian children’s writers—and the best of their

counterparts among U.S. and British writers—is all the more outstanding because they are bucking the forces of mass-market publishing economics. Increasingly, nonliterary gimmickery is taking a major share of the children’s book market—pop-ups, scratch’n’sniff and promotional efforts that swamp the printed word in a tidal wave of spinoffs. The Strawberry Shortcake character, which began life on a greeting card, had as much personality as a blob of Dream Whip, but the books, together with Strawberry gift wrap, dolls, bedding, stickers and school supplies, have reaped about $1 billion in three years.

Domination: This year the creators, American Greetings Corp. and General Mills, together with General Mills’ games manufacturing subsidiary, Parker Bros., have joined forces with the U.S. publishing giant Random House to bring the Care Bears to market in the form of $6.95 books. Consumers may forget Care Bears as easily as the taste for Strawberry Shortcake, but for the next year at least they will dominate the major department and chain bookstores.

Surprisingly, some observers credit the commercial juggernaut, which threatens to overwhelm indigenous

children’s publishing, with fostering the Canadian industry’s creative vitality. Said Toronto retailer Judy Sarick: “In the United States the accountants have taken over editorial production of children’s books. They are trying to second-guess what parents will buy. The strength of the Canadian industry is that it is not locked into that.” Added Munsch: “Small Canadian publishers don’t have the promotion budgets, so our books have to sell on their own merits.” Today Canadian output is prodigious in terms of what went before— and almost heroic, given the printing costs and risks of picture-book publishing. “But there is still not enough material,” complains the National Library’s Irene Aubrey. “We are sometimes very frustrated, especially in nonfiction.” Another bald patch, according to children’s literature historian Sheila Egoff, is children’s fantasy—the makebelieve worlds where young imaginations first take root. Egoff observed: “We aren’t great on fantasy in this country. It’s the same problem that we have in film: we’re better at documentaries. Our own landscape is too large and anonymous for us to feel comfortable with putting names to it.”

There are other problems. With the exceptions of the Children’s Book Centre newsletter and Canadian Children’s

Literature (circulation 1,200), the media largely downplay children’s books, and publishers live in fear of dying in the silence. Meanwhile, cutbacks have trimmed the acquisition budgets of schools and libraries. A shortfall of funding has forced some libraries to charge admission for the once sacrosanct children’s story hours. At other libraries, comments librarian Pearson, “trained children’s librarians are expected to spend 50 per cent of their time signing out adult thrillers.” Warned Egoff: “Like the White Queen in Alice, we have to run twice as fast to stay in the same place in making people aware of quality Canadian books. But cutbacks are making librarians’ jobs 10 times as hard.”

For the moment, the juvenile publishing industry enjoys such extraordinary vitality that it may be able to stay in the race. Said Lee: “A culture is healthier, I think, when kids can grab hold of a book unself-consciously and say, ‘This talks about me, this belongs to me.’ ” And whatever the future holds, children will continue to need a place for their imaginations to call home. This season, at least, it is possible for many young readers to believe that such a fantastic place exists.