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The Children's Book Centre and Communication Jeunesse

Their origins as agencies to promote Canadian Children's Literature

By Virginia Davis

Volume 14 Number 6

The Canadian children's book centre in Toronto, Ontario, a non-profit association for the promotion of Canadian children's literature in English, began as an idea in response to significant cultural developments in the 1960s and 1970s. Not the least of those developments was a similar agency for the promotion of French literature for the young, Communication Jeunesse, in Montréal (established 1971). The creation of two centres for a similar purpose reflects Canada's official bilingualism and the surge to assume a distinct national identity that was paramount in both cultures at the time.

The determination to acquire cultural identity was initially touched off by labour strife in Quebec. In 1949, workers in the Johns-Manville open asbestos pit in the town of Asbestos struck, to be met with powerful police action commanded by Quebec premier, Maurice Duplessis. Quebec's young intellectuals were aroused by the situation and responded with their own wit and organizational ability.

Following those developments in Quebec, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent recognized that "English Canada had no cohesion with which to confront such solidarity." In 1950, St. Laurent called for a study of Canadian culture, to be undertaken by a Royal Commission headed by a wealthy ascetic, Vincent Massey.

The Canada Council created

Acting on the recommendations of the Massey Report on Canadian culture, the Canadian government established the Canada Council in 1957. The buoyancy of the next decade, climaxed by Expo 67, was marred by a new cultural crisis in 1970. Ryerson Press, the oldest publishing house in Canada, cost its owner, the United Church of Canada, half a million dollars a year. Reluctantly, the church put the press up for sale, hoping for a Canadian buyer. None appeared, and the press was sold to McGraw-HiU of Canada Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States firm. "At about the same time, WJ. Gage Ltd. announced the sale of its educational division to Scott Foresman of Chicago -- once again because there was not enough working capital to complete successfully with wealthy American schoolbook companies operating in Canada. "2

Cultural crisis reaction

Reaction was strong. Graeme Gibson, novelist, was lecturing at the time at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto's city core. James Lorimer, founder of the publishing firm of James Lorimer and company, recruited Gibson to stage a protest. They draped an American flag over the campus statue of Egerton Ryerson, founder of the lamented press. "It was a serious lark," says Gibson, "but it was symbolic too. The surprising thing for me was that it was on television and in the newspapers; people paid attention to us and that was heady stuff."

In February of 1971, "Jack McClelland, president of McClelland and Stewart, made public the fact that liabilities amounting to over one million dollars and the impossibility of negotiating bank loans at reasonable rates left the company no alternative to selling out. This brought a shock reaction among Canadian publishers. . . Alarmed lest the mould of Canadian publishing be irreparably broken, the Ontario government had already appointed a Royal Commission on Book Publishing, and acting on its first interim report provided funds on sufficiently generous terms to prevent an American take over of McClelland and Stewart."4

Background papers

The Royal Commission had stimulated another interesting action. When it began to define its task, it discovered that, "For an industry devoted to the dissemination of information, book publishing has appeared remarkably reticent over the years about discussion in print of its own activities."5 To help remedy the lack of documentation, the Commission requested Tom experienced people a series of background papers. The background paper on Canadian children's book in English was written by Sheila Egoff, children's literature specialist in the Library School of the University of British Columbia. Egoff stated flatly, after reviewing the slim history of publishing for the young in the country,

"We need Canadian books for children; no imported literature can or will tell us about our own country. Our children's books, more than books for adults, show what Canada and Canadians like, what values we respect, how we look at ourselves today and at our past.... Many Canadian children's books, even those that are otherwise mediocre, have been informed by a deeply felt response to the land and its history; in this respect, the Canadian experience has been used by our writers successfully."

A proposed Children's Book Promotional Centre

Irma McDonough, children's and young people's consultant with the Provincial Library Service, Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation, believed that a centre similar to ones already established in Moscow, Stockholm, and Munich for the promotion of children's literature could be a major force in making a climate for the creative writing Egoff believed would come on its own in Canada, or not at all. When hearings began for the Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing, McDonough was ready with a proposal, but the Royal Commission's final recommendations ignored the area of children's books.

Another forum for action existed because of the recent cultural developments. Funding from Canada Council made possible the creation of a number of arts bodies. In 1975, the Book and Periodical Development Council was instituted as "an umbrella organization whose membership consists of national and regional associations involved in writing and editing, publishing and manufacturing,ending, distribution and selling Canadian books and magazines."

Canadian Books for Children Project

After the Council was created, one of its early concerns was a method for stimulating publishing for children in Canada. The Council's Library Information Committee pursued this interest and proposed the "Canadian Books for Children Project." The project received funding for a six-month period during 1967 with a grant of $37,000.

Evolvement into the Children's Book Centre

At the end of the project period, all participants recognized that staying under the umbrella of the Book and Periodical Development Council was bureaucratically unwieldy Two steps followed. The chairman of the Book and Periodical Development Council advised members of a decision to terminate direct support and involvement in the Canadian Books for Children Centre Project. McDonough, convenor of the interim Board of Directors for the Centre Project, replied on February 3,1977, indicating that "An Interim Board of Directors of the Canadian Books for Children Centre has been convened to assume responsibility for the continuation of the work initiated by the Project started I May 1976 under the sponsorship of the Book and Periodical Development Council. The Interim Board's first responsibility will be to hire a director and establish priorities in the program of activities outlined in the Management Committee's submission to the Canada Council forwarded through the BPDC last November."9

The interim aboard proposed a second phase of the Canadian Books for Children Centre Project.10 From that second phase, the Children's Book Centre, as it is now known, emerged.

The French counterpart

The French Canadian counterpart to the Children's Book Centre had emerged from a moment dramatically recounted by Paule Daveluy, writer and one of its founders, in an article in In Review in 1973.

The birth of Communication-Jeunesse was connected with a short paragraph which appeared in a Montréal newspaper toward the end of the summer of 1970. Seven or eight lines announced that the Secretary of State in Ottawa would devote consider able sums of money from then on to a project called "Horizons Canada" whose main aim would be to "make Canada known to Canadians".11

"It was," continues Daveluy, "a beautiful August day. My sister Suzanne (who also writes for young people) was staying with me for a while in the country. We had talked a lot in the preceding days of the problems which confronted many of our friends, occupied, like us, in . . .Canadian literature for young people. Because of the financial difficulties of our editor (publisher), one of the last still publishing in this field, our manuscripts had languished at the bottom of deep drawers for two, three or even four years, and the production for 1969 was obviously disastrous...."

"Books for children," Suzanne said to Paule Daveluy, "what an excellent way to 'make Canada known to Canadians.' n The sisters had decided by dusk on that memorable August day what their next action would be. "We would send the cultural organizations, the Canada Council and the Quebec Ministry of Cultural Affairs a memo asking for their assistance.''13

To prepare that memo, "it was necessary,'' Daveluy recounts, "to get together an impromptu group to consider the situation."

Communication-Jeunesse created

Crisply, Daveluy announces a birth:

"There were 20 of us. The association was formed. By the third meeting it had been christened: Communication-Jeunesse. Why "communication" rather than "literature"? Because, in the twentieth century, the book cannot stand alone; it is supplemented by illustrations and transparencies. The field of intellectual creativity is widening day by day and we wanted to consider it as a whole."

Other influences

Michele Provost, a contemporary spokesperson for Communication-Jeunesse, places its foundation in the broader political context of the time, as well as acknowledging the state of publishing so decried by Daveluy. Provost emphasizes changes in teaching attitudes and techniques as well as the general political climate. Provost pinpoints 1970 as the turning point, as several efforts converged to the same objective "faire revivre la litterature de jeunesse quebecoise parce que les jeunes en ont besoin.''17

Then looking back from the current perspective, Provost pronounces, "En 1984,on peut considerer que l'organisme (Communication-Jeunesse) est une plaque tournante de l'edition pour la litterature de jeunesse au Quebec."

Out of cultural ferment in the country grew the two promotional agencies that have tackled the job of awakening Canadians to literature from their own culture for their young people. In Quebec, the recognition of scarcity of literature and the deep cultural sensitivity of the "maitre chez nous" policy and the "quiet revolution" it stimulated resulted in Communication-Jeunesse. In English Canada, the threat of loss to the United States of two major publishing institutions prodded a royal commission on publishing which in turn recommended action to make the industry more viable. A climate was set in which a proposal to create a Children's Book Centre similar to centres already created in other countries could be successful.

Note: This article is an edited extract from a thesis presented to the Library School, University of Minnesota. The programs and the proven effectiveness of the two agencies will be explored in a later article.


1. Paule Daveluy, "Communication-Jeunesse, où l'union fait la force," In Review VII:2 (Spring 1973): 13-19.
2. H. Pearson Gundy, "The Development of Trade Book Publishing in Canada," in Royal Commission on Book Publishing: Background Papers (Toronto: Queen's Printer and Publisher,1972), p. 34.
3. Stephen Gauer, "From Writing to Politics and Back: Gibson in Perpetual Motion," Quill and Quire, October 1982, p. 34.
4. Gundy, The Development of Trade Book Publishing...," p.34.
5. Royal Commission on Book Publishing: Background Papers (Toronto: Queen's Printer and Publisher,1972),p.vii.
6. Sheila Egoff, "The Writing and Publishing of Canadian Children's Books in English," in Royal Commission on Book Publishing: Background papers (Toronto: Queen's Printer and Publisher,1972), pp.255-256
7. Book and Periodical Development Council: Description. June 1984.
8. Interview with Annabel Slaight, Publisher, Owl Books, 6 February 1984.
9. Irma McDonough to Graeme Gibson,3 February 1977.
10. "Proposal to the Canada Council; Phase 11: Canadian Books for Children Centre January I December 31,1977."
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