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Kidlit spotlight: the golden age of Canadian picture books

If you’ve noticed that Canadian children’s book authors and illustrators seem to be garnering a lot of attention lately, you’re not alone. International awards and recognition and a ton of buzz are becoming the norm for homegrown talent. It got us thinking: are we in a golden age of Canadian picture books? Q&Q asked a panel of kidlit experts, including librarians, authors, and reviewers, to weigh in.


Sarah Sorensen Kidlit SpotlightSarah Sorensen is an historian, author, and librarian currently working at the Hamilton Public Library. She is also a frequent reviewer for Q&Q.

Judith Saltman Kidlit SpotlightJudith Saltman is a professor at the School of Library, Archival & Information Studies at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches courses in children’s literature. She has written three books on Canadian kidlit and publishing.

Linda Ludke Kidlit SpotlightLinda Ludke is a collections management librarian at the London Public Library who reviews children’s books for Q&Q and the National Reading Campaign.

Helen Kubiw Kidlit SpotlightHelen Kubiw is the blogger behind CanLit for LittleCanadians, a teacher-librarian, former chair of the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading, and current YA authors’ co-ordinator for the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival.

Sarah Ellisv Kidlit SpotlightSarah Ellis is a Vancouver author and former librarian. She has won numerous awards, including a Governor General’s Literary Award, Vicky Metcalf Award, Sheila A. Egoff Award, TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, and the B.C. Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence. Her latest children’s book is Ben Says Goodbye, illustrated by Kim La Fave (Pajama Press).

Kerry Clare Kidlit SpotlightKerry Clare is the editor of 49thShelf.com, and writes about books and reading on her personal blog, Pickle Me This. She also edited the anthology The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood (Goose Lane Editions).

Shannon Ozinry Kidlit SpotlightShannon Ozirny is the head of youth services at the West Vancouver Memorial Library and reviews regularly for Q&Q and The Globe and Mail. She has been a jury member for the B.C. Book Prize, and sat on committees for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Best Books for Kids and the American Library Association’s Odyssey Award.

Butterfly Park, Elly MacKay

Butterfly Park, Elly MacKay

Kubiw: I believe that we always had incredible picture books as part of CanLit. We can go back decades and find awards giving the nod to exceptional illustrators and illustrated books, such as those of William Kurelek (A Prairie Boy’s Summer), which are essentially great works of art with wonderful stories. And there have been tough stories put into picture books, even though the art may seem whimsical, like Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s Enough, an allegory of Stalin’s Holodomor (man-made famine), illustrated by Michael Martchenko.

But the quality and unique artwork that is now evident is astounding. Elly MacKay with her 3-D stagings, Sydney Smith, Isabelle Malenfant, and Jon Klassen – I could go on and on. And now it’s more than just watercolour and ink, or pencil and crayon. The mixed-media art of François Thisdale in the award-winning The Stamp Collector (written by Jennifer Lanthier) points to a more sophisticated form of illustration.

The Stamp Collector

The Stamp Collector, Jennifer Lanthier; François Thisdale, illus.

Saltman: It depends on what is golden, doesn’t it? I interviewed more than 130 people in Canada for a book about publishing and the Canadian picture-book industry, and one of the big questions was of Canadian national identity and content. It was a huge issue to the veterans who established the literature in the 1970s: publishers like Rick Wilks and Patsy Aldana, and creators such as Ian Wallace, Ann Blades, Janet Lunn, Kim La Fave, Roch Carrier, Marie-Louise Gay, Brian Deines, Kady MacDonald Denton, and Barbara Reid, among many others. I think they are the backbone of the picture-book publishing industry in Canada; they shaped the present-day possibilities. All of them stated how critical national identity was in their work. So, if they established the foundation and created the first golden age of Canadian picture-book publishing, perhaps this is a second golden age.

Ellis: In the early days, our picture books were also edgy, innovative, and beautiful. They stretched the idea of the audience, and this tradition continued. I think of something like Gillian Johnson’s Saranohair, an entirely quirky, two-colour, sophisticated mock-Victorian adventure ahead of its time. Or Thomas King’s A Coyote Columbus Story (illustrated by Kent Monkman), which is still, I think, the boldest picture book ever published in Canada. Our picture books during this period were so artistic that an American colleague once said to me, “Don’t you Canadians have any junky books at all?” The truth was, we just didn’t have any mass-market series. Then we did. The popularity and success of something like Franklin may have given the impression that Canadian picture books had become safer, more market-oriented, and more staid. But I think it is just that we had two different things going on. There was Franklin in the Dark and there was Stormy Night, which is like the difference between chalk and cheese. I’m not saying that Franklin is junk. It is very good chalk. It’s just not cheese.

Sidewalk Flowers, JonArno Lawson; Sydney Smith, illus.

Sidewalk Flowers, JonArno Lawson; Sydney Smith, illus.

Ludke: I also think there have been a few golden ages for Canadian picture books and I agree that we are in darn exciting times. So many recent books have both exceptional artwork and provocative storylines – like Cybèle Young’s meticulously surreal Ten Birds and her delicate paper sculptures in Nancy Knows. There’s lots of experimentation going on that surprises and charms readers, like Jon Klassen’s dark humour and the interactive features of Matthew Forsythe’s illustrations in Adam Lehrhapt’s Do Not Open This Book! Different voices are slowly being heard, too – like Julie Flett’s Wild Berries.

Ozirny: When I think about a “golden age” I think of both quality and quantity. I think we have definitely had the quality in past decades, but it seems like there is a real explosion of talent happening. When I’m refilling the picture-book displays, my hunt for Canadian titles doesn’t last as long as it did even six or seven years ago.

I have also noticed that Canadian picture-book creators are starting to get some real name recognition with kids. There has always been Robert Munsch, but kids now come in and ask for Jon Klassen, Ashley Spires, Mélanie Watt, and Jeremy Tankard, which is tremendously exciting.

I have a sense that some of this is due to the entire publishing team, not just the author-illustrator. I feel that things about the “whole book” have really improved – cover design, paper quality, etc. Tundra, for instance, has been blowing me away recently with new talent like artist Cale Atkinson.

Kubiw: I have to agree with Shannon about the teams at publishers being instrumental in getting these outstanding picture books out there. There are ones like Groundwood who I know will always be willing to try something a little different.

How To, Julie Morstad

How To, Julie Morstad

Clare: The “whole book” point seems key to me. Gorgeous endpapers, full-colour throughout, illustrators who are unabashedly artful – Klassen, Flett, Julie Morstad – and who are often author-illustrators, thereby having the illustrations be of foremost importance to the book’s concept, rather than a secondary element. So yes, I certainly think we’re in a golden age. Authors’ willingness to take on big and sometimes intangible concepts is also a part of this.

I wonder, though, if it is these books’ adult appeal we are celebrating. Would young readers concur? It would not negate the golden age if they didn’t; it is up to grown-up readers to determine literary goodness, I think. Children aren’t always so discerning. I know I wasn’t.

Ozirny: I like Kerry’s golden age definition: both adult appeal and kid popularity. I think that’s the sweet spot we are in right now.

Ellis: Take Jeremy Tankard’s Me Hungry. It is artful, beautifully constructed, and has something real and honest to say without succumbing to the dreadful Canadian tendency to earnestness.

I think the most exciting development is the flourishing of aboriginal picture books. They give us new perspectives and new voices, are well designed, use good paper, and have appealing covers. So, yes, a golden age, but honestly, we’ve been pretty golden all along.

This is Not My Hat, Jon Klassen

This is Not My Hat, Jon Klassen

Ludke: There is more crossover appeal of late – the complex themes of sadness, insecurity, and other big ideas we grapple with whether we’re six or 86.

I remember when I first read a galley of Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back – it was such a thrill, the wanting-something-I-don’t-have theme was so freshly executed and not didactic. When I read the book to classes – kids who have been around the storytime block a few times – they are so surprised by how the book unfolds, and the ending is not what they expect. We’ve certainly seen other books that have tackled big philosophical questions with aplomb – like Michele Lemieux’s Stormy Night – but there is something so immediate in Klassen’s work, like readers are co-conspirators, playing with expectations and breaking the rules.

Ella's Umbrellas, Jennifer Lloyd; Ashley Spires, illus.

Ella’s Umbrellas, Jennifer Lloyd; Ashley Spires, illus.

Kubiw: Books like I Want My Hat Back and Some Things I’ve Lost by Cybèle Young provide a different take on storytelling, with their frisson of surprising irreverence. Isn’t that the same reason The Paper Bag Princess has become such a classic?

Saltman: I’d say the exciting new, energetic, sophisticated creators are bringing edgier visions to their work. The publishers seem more open to them now than 10 years ago.

Sorensen: I think it’s also worth noting that a similar evolution can be found elsewhere – TV and film, for instance – and this overall evolution in what we, as a society, find funny, touching, exciting, etc., is influencing the content we demand and which, in turn, gets created. When it comes to picture books, interestingly, even though parents and kids increasingly demand an elevated level of sophistication in story, look, and feel, parents also carry a significant amount of nostalgia for picture books of yesteryear. Being a successful and popular modern picture-book author-illustrator means tapping into that “sweet spot” that marries the two.

Ozirny: Another thing I’ve noticed – which might be meaningless – is the attention our picture books are getting in the U.S. The neat thing is that these illustrators aren’t making it big and then flying the coop to be joined at the hip to an American publisher. It seems that our creators are more likely to stick with their Canadian publishers even when they strike it big. We are no longer a stepping stone to the bigger American market.

Saltman: I think the books are so well known because many of the author-illustrators work cross-nationally. Since the late 1990s, Canadian publishers have turned themselves into American publishers by entering the American market and establishing themselves in the U.S. – that is the only way they have survived financially. So, most American juries, librarians, and booksellers do not know when a title is Canadian.

When I interviewed most of the publishers of children’s books in Canada, they discussed how the move into the U.S. market meant they were possibly leaving the Canadian cultural content behind. I see less Canadian content, except for some significant publications from Groundwood and the aboriginal publishers. Is this a trade-off for the need to appeal to an international audience? I would like to believe that less explicit Canadian content is part of the works even if more explicit identity markers are not.

Q&Q: Judith brings up some very interesting points. How do the current books compare to those early groundbreakers from the 1970s in terms of their “Canadianness?”

Ozirny: We wouldn’t be where we are now without that backbone of the metaphorical bushwhacking of those 1960s and ’70s figures Judith mentioned, and I think that’s pivotal to this question.

As for what constitutes “Canadianness,” I do think it can be much more subtle than telling a story about B.C. salmon (though those kinds of books about specific regional experiences are undeniably important). There are things about the Canadian experience that I think are universally accessible. For instance, Canada is known for producing really well-loved comedians, and I think there is something very distinct about our humour or the way our creators use surprise and originality to make people laugh: Klassen and his hats, Tankard and his wonderful Destructosaurus/toddler metaphor, Kate Beaton and her deadpan treatment of her cross-eyed, bloated pony.

I Know Here, Laurel Croza; Matt James, illus.

I Know Here, Laurel Croza; Matt James, illus.

Ludke: I love what Judith said about less explicit content. Julie Flett brings her father’s fondness for sour blueberries and aboriginal values and language to her universally appealing work; Matt James brings with him Stan Rogers and Emily Carr.

Q&Q: What’s missing from the current crop of Canadian picture books?

Ellis: I miss picture books about realistic contemporary children. We have animals – lots of animals – we’ve got monsters, we’ve got inanimate objects, we’ve got fantasy, but where are the regular kids?

Clare: Also, what’s missing, as always, are stories about ordinary family life in which the family in question is not white. There are plenty of counter-examples – books by Shauntay Grant (Up Home, Apples and Butterflies), Chieri Uegaki (Rosie and Buttercup, Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin), etc. – and a few presses do a great job of producing diverse books, but sometimes these seem more specialized instead of being intended for a general audience.

This is Sadie, Sara O'Leary; Julie Morstad, illus.

This is Sadie, Sara O’Leary; Julie Morstad, illus.

Ludke: Yes to more diverse books where diversity isn’t the main issue or “problem,” but just part of being, like in Morstad’s How To.

Ozirny: I can’t think of a recent book that shows a kid just “being” in a Canadian place. I’d be interested to see a book about the everydayness of being a Canadian kid.

Sorensen: I’ve worked in two public library systems at branches serving diverse communities and I think it’s very important to note that, despite significant advances, there still are barriers that hinder some families’ ability to enjoy particular titles (language, level of education). I’ve fielded calls for help from exhausted parents coming off work at the end of the day looking for “just a nice story; nothing too flashy or weird.” A truly great picture book will reach everyone regardless of their background or circumstances.

Q&Q: Could it be that the lack of human characters is a way around diversity? Or is that too cynical?

Ellis: I don’t think that is cynical; I think it is just practical. Way back when, Dayal Kaur Khalsa did some board books where all the human characters were green as a way around the diversity issue. And using animals gets around cultural specificity. What is cynical is the suspicion that there is an unspoken assumption in the publishing world that white book buyers will not choose a title featuring a brown child.

Sorensen: As picture-book publishers and creators continue to push the envelope, we need to make sure all families feel included, not just those fortunate enough to have the time and resources to be able to seek out specific titles. I suppose one could argue that if “golden age” refers to choice, it doesn’t matter if some families are sticking to Munsch, Eric Carle, Seuss, etc., they are still participants in the golden age. Maybe at the end of the day, the golden age is “golden” simply because all this choice is keeping people reading – with whatever they’re drawn to, for whatever reasons – in an era where, more than ever, time is precious and competition for attention is stiff and fierce.

Clare: I’m re-reading the collected letters of Ursula Nordstrom right now, and just came across a line that perfectly expresses what I feel about books by Morstad, Klassen, and other author-illustrators working right now. Writing about Where the Wild Things Are, she says, “Most books are written from the outside in, but Wild Things comes from the inside out, if you know what I mean.” And I do. This to me is what seems to distinguish Canadian picture books right now from those of the past.