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Volume VIII Number 12 . . . . February 15, 2002
Alphabet books are often considered the fare of preschoolers who are just beginning to make connections amongst books, words, letters and the act of reading. However, many alphabet books are intended for those who can already read, and their contents may, in fact, extend in interest beyond children to adults as well. M is for Maple: A Canadian Alphabet is definitely not for the pre-reader who needs to learn to associate letter names with their upper and lower forms or to connect the letters with their "sounds." In fact, finding the appropriate audience for M is for Maple: A Canadian Alphabet has been the most difficult aspect of evaluating its contents.
As the title clearly indicates, the book's focus is strictly Canadian. Pairs of pages are either devoted to a single letter of the alphabet, or each page in a pair is given over to a single letter. Mike Ulmer, a sports columnist for the Toronto Star, authored both the poetic and prose texts. Paintings by Melanie Rose, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art, occupy most of the pages' space although a coloured side border provides a place for the prose text. Overlaid on the artwork can be found Ulmer's poetry which usually takes the form of four line poems that utilize rhyming couplets, although variations, like the following, do occur.
The prose text appearing on the coloured border along with the appropriate letter in upper and lower case briefly expands upon whatever was the subject of that letter's poetry. As can be seen from the above excerpt, G's poem was about grain, and the accompanying text provides some factual material. With the letter G, as with slightly less than half of the other letters, Ulmer adds a second example of the letter's use, in this case Governor General.
While the format is that of a picture book, the volume's contents are far ranging in their subject matter and extend in scope from the very familiar, such as H's "Hockey," to the more obscure or obtuse, like J's "Justice" which employs the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to make its point. Many of the letters' foci will educate younger readers who may, for instance, not know that Kim Campbell was Canada's first female prime minister or that Canada was one of the destinations of slaves who followed the Underground Railroad. Adults will likely more quickly recognize P's Oscar Peterson, R's Rocket Richard, B's Frederick Banting and D's Dionne Quints though, hopefully, F's Terry Fox is also known to the nation's juveniles. Place names, like T's Toronto, L's Louisbourg, V's Victoria or K's Klondike, are also used as topics as are natural phenomena like W's Wind or N's Northern Lights. Even Z has a Canadian connection for, while the zipper was invented by an American, it was a Canadian, Gideon Sundback, who perfected and patented it.
Rose's artwork is truly outstanding. Readers will almost be able to hear the excited sounds coming from the children who are playing pond hockey on a bright, clear winter day. Similarly, the noisy, confused action of a battle is caught in Rose's rendition of the French troops defending Louisbourg. The crackling of the Northern Lights on a still winter night and the thundering hooves and other frantic noises of the chuckwagon races at the Calgary stampede will engage readers/viewers, both young and old. Her art also captures the drama of an event whether it is the tension in the faces of the runaway slaves who appear uncertain about having reached their freedom destination or the exultation of a Klondike miner who has just discovered a gold nugget. As can be seen in the illustrations of Oscar Peterson or Maurice Richard, for example, Rose's portraits of real people capture nuances of their characters.
Perhaps like that Klondike miner, purchasers of M is for Maple: A Canadian Alphabet will have to discover their own valuable uses for the book. While it can, and should, be read cover to cover, likely teachers, librarians and parents will return to the volume and "mine" particular letters for their classroom connections. A most useful addition both to libraries' Canadiana and alphabet book collections.
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children's and adolescent literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.