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The First Red Maple Leaf

by Ludmila Zeman

This story takes place long ago in a northern world ruled by Iceheart, the terrible spirit of winter. Life is hard for people and animals alike. One day a boy finds a goose trapped beneath a fallen tree and decides to kill it for food; but Branta the goose begs for her life in return for leading his people southward to safety. Iceheart follows them, raging, but Branta leads the people to sheltering trees whose leaves fall thickly to hide them. But once all the leaves have fallen, the trees are dead. The boy sets off after Branta to seek her help once again. Together they bring back the bright birds of the sunny south to cover the trees with colour. Although Iceheart still rules in winter, from that time on summer always banishes him for a time and the leaves always return.

This is a lovely story told in the universal folktale tradition. As such, it features the familiar motifs of the helpful animal and the young hero’s quest. Zeman’s language is simple and timeless, and her illustrations add depth and texture to the story. Many panels are divided into smaller sections, which tell the progressive actions in sequence and in much more detail. Her depiction of Iceheart as a ferocious clawed monster is particularly fine and vivid. And her portrayal of the bright birds that cover the trees is wonderfully ambiguous so that we, like the boy, cannot tell birds from leaves. However, young readers will surely ask why the “red leaves,” which are said to fall thickly around the people at the beginning, are actually coloured a dull gold – not red – on the page.

Zeman has crafted this story to explain why the maple leaf is the symbol of Canada. Thus, Branta is a Canada goose, the boy rides south on a moose, and his people are clearly intended to be our aboriginal people. Although the idea of the maple leaf in particular – rather than leaves in general – as a symbol of protection might have been developed more clearly, Zeman, a Czech-born writer and illustrator, has nevertheless created a beautiful original myth for her adopted country of Canada.


Reviewer: Joanne Findon

Publisher: Tundra Books


Price: $17.95

Page Count: 24 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0- 88776-372-3

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: 1997-6

Categories: Picture Books

Age Range: ages 6–8