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Only in Canada: From the Colossal to the Kooky

by Vivien Bowers, Dianne Eastman, illus.

I have never been a fan of sidebars – I find them too distracting, like knowing there might be a better TV show on another channel – and Vivien Bowers’ new book, Only in Canada, is all sidebar. Subtitled From the Colossal to the Kooky, Bowers’ book is an assemblage of interesting facts about our country, organized into six chapters focusing respectively on geography, flora and fauna, settlement, commerce, weather, and notable Canadians.

Bowers hit a commercial and critical home run with her last book, Wow Canada! Exploring this Land from Coast to Coast to Coast, so she clearly knows what kind of information appeals to kids, and how best to present it. In her new book, since there is no central narrative or text, the sidebar format isn’t distracting, and readers can either methodically work their way from left to right, or graze wherever the visuals are most enticing. Bowers tries to lend a sense of cohesion to the book with a cartoon moose and goose tag team who introduce every chapter, pop up on each double-page spread to comment on the text, and make witty (or not so witty) repartee.

The facts Bowers presents are by and large absorbing, and often fresh and unexpected. In her segment on plate tectonics and the formation of our landscape, I must admit I was learning pretty much everything anew. In her bit about the Yukon gold rush, Bowers sparked my curiosity enough to send me to the atlas, where I pored happily over maps before returning to the book. If she can galvanize kids to pursue their own research like this, the book is obviously working. Elsewhere, Bowers tells us that three to five generations of monarch butterflies are born during their annual spring migration from Mexico to the Great Lakes, and yet the newborns still manage to find their way home despite never having been there. In the section on commerce we learn that Canada has the world’s longest pipeline running from Alberta to Sarnia, Ontario; the oil takes a month to make the 11,500-kilometre trip. Bowers’ explanation of the aurora borealis is enlightening, and it was news to me that in 1989 a particularly dazzling display, which could be seen as far away as Jamaica, caused an energy surge that triggered a blackout in all of Quebec.

Of all the sections, the one on outstanding Canadians seems the least unusual, perhaps because we tend to know more about famous personalities than we do about facts and phenomena. There are the obvious picks like Terry Fox, Norman Bethune, and Alexander Graham Bell, who invented, Bowers tells us refreshingly, “no end of useful and useless stuff!” There are also profiles of physically big Canadians (such as Angus McAskill, who weighed in at 517 pounds and stood 7 feet 9 inches tall) and nutters like Bill Lishman, who teaches geese to migrate, and Tony Hurtubise, who built an armoured suit to withstand a grizzly attack – all certainly zany, but not likely to be remembered as great Canadians. While I’d realized that Canadians could take credit for inventing basketball, lacrosse, and ice hockey, I was ignorant of the fact that it was a Canadian who invented the traffic line, to keep the lanes clearly differentiated. Other nations may mock us as earnest and boring, but they must thank us for the traffic line.

The design of Only in Canada, like many books and magazines for young readers, leans toward the more-is-more approach, but usually avoids seeming too cluttered – a challenge given the sidebar format. The layout is varied and generous, with plenty of photos and Dianne Eastman’s playful illustrations. The chapter introductions tend to be too busy, with too many different fonts (so that it’s not clear what’s a headline and what’s important text), and the type for the exchanges between the moose and goose is just a touch too small. But overall, this is a visually vigorous book, with colourful pages, a dynamic choice of archival and reference photos, and collages.

Only in Canada does not aspire to the comprehensiveness of, say, Janet Lunn’s The Story of Canada. Rather it’s a scrapbook of interesting, surprising, and humorous things about the country. The only problem with scrapbooks is that all the bits and pieces tend to seem a little fragmented and, in the reader’s mind, often come unglued, without a stronger narrative spine to keep the contents bound together.