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Making Friends

Books That Transcend the Barrier of Strangeness

By Joan McGrath

Volume 19 Number 3
1991 May

Maybe we can 't introduce all of our country's children of different cultural backgrounds to one another, but they can get to know each other through these Canadian picture-books and novels recommended by Joan McGrath.

There can be no doubt that library collections in Canada should reflect this country's increasingly multicultural composition. People, and most especially children, tend to fear and distrust "the unknown;" on occasion, they unthinkingly "don't like" children of racial or cultural groups other than their own for no other reason than that they are "strangers."

Obviously, it is impossible to counter the problem by introducing all of our country's children of different cultural backgrounds to one another, but the next best alternative is to introduce them to each other through their own popular literature. It is quite possible to feel the same friendship and to recognize the same sense of kinship and responsiveness to characters one has learned to care for through the printed word as to those met in the flesh. Once a child has shared, for example, the perils of Liza and Jullily in their escape to freedom or Vincenzo's difficulties with his "stinky meat" sandwich, the beginnings of a friendship have begun to take shape.

There is a wealth of excellent Canadian material to hand on our library shelves or readily available through bookstores and publishers: it behooves us to make the best possible use of it. Here are but a handful of examples, from the easy reading level to the young adult category, that will help readers to transcend the artificial barrier of "strangeness" in favour of "Canadianness."

Billy's World is that of a small boy who lives on a northern Cree reserve with his family. This lovely picture story shows the child busy at those pursuits at school and at home that he shares with most modern youngsters, but also sharing the special joys of tending the family trap-line with his grandpa. This charming story and others of its type reveal the essential sameness of lives superficially so very different.

A Big City ABC has no particular hero, nor does it emphasize any particular culture. The star of the piece is a large multicultural city--Toronto-- and some of its colourful districts. Multilingual street signs tell their own tale of efficient co-existence, but best of all are pictures of youngsters from many ethnic backgrounds playing happily together.

By contrast, Mary of Mary of Mile 18 lives in a countryside in north-central B.C. that most would consider desolate and inhospitable; but to her it is homelike and welcoming. She shares with most other youngsters a longing for a pet, but where most children ask for a kitten or a puppy, Mary's heart is lost to a wolf cub. Her stern Mennonite father will not have any useless mouth on his farm. Through the years, this lovely book, with its heart-warming conclusion, retains its power to charm.

Another very adaptable picture-book is The Enchanted Caribou. This story of the young northern lovers, parted by witchcraft but at last reunited, is a well-loved Inuit tale, enhanced by Elizabeth Cleaver's cut-out puppets that invite readers to be shadow theatre performers as well.

When the Christmas supply plane arrives in a small arctic community of the 1950s, as well as the eagerly awaited goodies for the planned celebration, it contains a bundle of evergreens. Now what is one to do with these, the children wonder, for trees, Christmas or otherwise, have no part in the customs of a treeless land. After the favourite holiday is over, one youngster has a wonderful idea. If you chopped off the useless branches, you could make a baseball bat! Suddenly the neglected "standing ups" become sought-after items, and the children fervently hope that after this, every December may bring more Baseball Bats for Christmas.

Vincenzo Ferrantes is humiliated when the other children at his school mock his "stinky meat" lunch and hold their noses when he takes out his mortadella and provolone sandwich, rather than the correct tasteless peanut butter and jam on white bread that everyone else has to eat. His understanding papa offers to make him the "proper" lunch, if that is what he really wants, but suggests that it would be better to be proud of what he is, and to let the world know it. When eventually Vincent shares his smelly lunch with the other kids, they discover what they have been missing. Just because it isn't what you have been accustomed to, doesn't mean it isn't GOOD, like The Sandwich.

One of the best-loved of all Canadian stories begins on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, when two mistreated children, Liza and Jullily, resolve to dare the terrors of escape from slavery to find their way to freedom in the north. Underground to Canada has probably awakened more young minds to the iniquity of slavery than any other book written in Canada, and that empathy must surely colour young readers' responses to instances of oppression at any time, in any place.

Nykola and Granny is another tale of escape from oppression. Unavoidably left with his grandmother while his family immigrate to Canada, Nykola is held captive by his aunt's exploitive husband, who means to keep him as an unpaid labourer. Brave and resolute Granny bids her beloved Ukrainian homeland farewell in order to restore young Nykola to his parents. This unpretentious story brings home very vividly the quiet heroism of those, young and old, who dare to build a new life in an unknown land, and of the strength they bring with them to that new country.

New South Asian Canadians have a challenging gap to bridge between the cultures of their homelands and that of North America. Camels Can Make You Homesick is a collection of five different stories of youngsters who must be at one and the same time South Asian, a part of their close-knit communities, and North American, integrated into the world of school and the community at large.

Most of Canada's history is a source of pride, but some few episodes, including the internment of the Japanese Canadians during World War II, are anything but a source of pride, and should be regretfully acknowledged. Naomi's Road, A Child in Prison Camp and Baachan! Geechan! Arigato are three stories for juniors that recount with a praiseworthy lack of bitterness the sorry tale of incarceration and belated reparation.

Closer to the present day, The Minerva Program is a story of mini-intrigue. Minerva, a math whiz, is accused of tampering with the marks stored in the school computer, and is barred from her beloved computer lab. With the help of her friends, Minerva unmasks the true, unsuspected culprit. The fact that determined and likeable Minerva just happens to be black has nothing at all to do with the plot, which in itself is a wonderfully subtle and admirable statement about the irrelevance of such details.

The native Canadian story is only now beginning to be told, and many powerful titles should help young adult readers understand the long-simmering grievances now fuelling the headlines. Storm Child is historically based fiction telling of the trauma, all too often experienced by families abandoned by father-traders who left them behind on their return to Europe. Sweetgrass describes the upheaval caused by the invasion of Europeans and by the trade goods and unfamiliar, deadly diseases they brought with them that wrought havoc on the people of the Plains. Blood Red Ochre is an imaginative not-quite-time-travel account of the last young Beothuk warrior on a mission to rescue his dying people, and of his meeting in spirit with a modern Newfoundlander who is doing his best to understand the tragedy of that lost nation.

The Chinese workers of the west, too, had difficult beginnings, as described in Tales from Gold Mountain. Far from finding the gold they had been promised, they met with prejudice and oppression in their new country. Nevertheless, these tireless workers persevered to become the proud Chinese Canadians of today. Another story from that troubled past, The Curses of Third Uncle, shows the emergence of a character changing in response to new surroundings. The young heroine, Lillian, is expected to be docile and obedient, but in her determination to find and exonerate her father, falsely labelled a thief, Lillian proves herself a different kind of honourable Chinese daughter--in fact, a warrior.

The difficulty is not to find wonderful Canadian titles, but rather to give these riches due credit: for example, the story of the child who searches for the half of her heritage that has been hidden from her, in My Name Is Paula Popowich; the youngster who is determined to be worthy of her dauntless heroine Harriet Tubman, conductor of the Underground Railway, by helping her homesick friend return from exile to her beloved Tobago, in Harriet's Daughter; or the teenagers on the brink of falling in love who are driving their respective families to distraction, for she is Jewish and he is Muslim, in Heartbreak High.

One of the best books to help the reader to understand the Canadian experience, whatever that may be, is Canadian Childhoods, a wonderful anthology in which authors and artists tell of their formative years and of how they came to provide the collective national memory by which all readers, young or old, cannot but be enriched.


Baachan! Geechan! Arigato. Designed by Alan Fujiwara. Toronto: Momiji Pub., 1989. ISBN 0-9693867-0-2.

Bellingham, Brenda. Storm Child. Toronto: Lorimer, 1985. ISBN 088862793-9

Blades, Ann. Mary of Mile 18. Montréal: Tundra Books, 1971. ISBN 088776-015-5.

Canadian Childhoods: A Tundra Anthology in Words and Art. Montréal: Tundra Books,1989. ISBN 0-88776-208-5.

Cleaver, Elizabeth. The Enchanted Caribou. Toronto: Oxford University Press,1985. ISBN 0-19-54092-0.

Horne, Constance. Nykola and Granny. Toronto: Gage JeanPac), 1989. ISBN 07715-7019-8.

Hudson, Jan. Sweetgrass. Toronto: Tree Frog Press, 1984. ISBN 088967-076-5.

Hughes, Monica. My Name Is Paula Popowich. Toronto: Lorimer, 1983. ISBN 0-88862-689-4.

Kogawa,Joy. Naomi's Road. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 019-540547-1.

Kusugak, Michael Arvaarluk. Baseball Bats for Christmas. Toronto: Annick Press, 1990. ISBN 1-55037-144-4.

Mackay, Claire. The Minerva Program. Toronto: Lorimer, 1984. ISBN 0-88862716-5.

Major, Kevin. Blood Red Ochre. Toronto: Delacorte/Doubleday, 1989. ISBN 0385-29794-7.

Moak, Allan. A Big City ABC. Montréal: Tundra Books, 1989. ISBN 088776-238-7.

Nourbese Philip, Marlene. Harriet's Daughter. Toronto: Women's Press, 1988. ISBN 0-88961-134-3.

Sadiq, Nazneen. Camels Can Make You Homesick. Toronto: Lorimer, 1985. ISBN 0-88862-913-3.

Sadiq, Nazneen. Heartbreak High. Toronto: Lorimer, 1988. ISBN 155028127-5.

Smucker, Barbara. Underground to Canada. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1977. ISBN 0-14-031122-X.

Takashima. A Child in Prison Camp. Montréal: Tundra Books, 1971. ISBN 088776-241-7.

Wallace, lan. The Sandwich. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 1975. ISBN 0919996402-8.

Weber-Pillwax, Cora. Billy's World. Edmonton: Reidmore Books, 1989. ISBN 0-919091-54-1.

Yee, Paul. The Curses of Third Uncle. Toronto: Lorimer, 1986. ISBN 088862909-5.

Yee, Paul. Tales from Gold Mountain. Ground wood Books / Douglas & Mclntyre,1989. ISBN 0-88899-098-7.

Joan McGrath is a library consultant with the Board of Education for the City of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario, and a regular CM reviewer.

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