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Book Reviews

The Kids Book of Great Canadians

by Elizabeth MacLeod, John Mantha, illus.

Canadian Greats

by Maxine Trottier, Mark Thurman, illus.

Two new biographical compilations of great Canadians, historical and contemporary, tackle the topic in different ways. Elizabeth MacLeod takes an encyclopedic approach in The Kids Book of Great Canadians, featuring capsule entries on 150 memorable Canadians, while Maxine Trottier provides overview biographies of five great Canadians.

MacLeod is the savvy author of several well-received biographies – of Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, and Lucy Maud Montgomery – for young readers. Her approach and writing are key elements in making the book such a whopping success. Her biographical entries are written with the cut-to-the-chase concision and economical narrative of a fast-paced, informative newspaper feature. MacLeod begins each entry with a catchy lead, usually the moment that set each person on the path to greatness. Her lively, engaging narratives capture the essence of each person’s character and dramatically encapsulate their struggles to achieve their goals and dreams.

The book contains a range of categories (heroes, exploration, science and technology, business, government, the arts, and sports) and an appealing mixture of the usual suspects and lesser-known Canadians equally deserving of recognition. Along with the famous de Champlain and Cabot in the exploration section, MacLeod includes an intriguing entry on David Thompson, the world’s first geographer, who mapped one-third of Canada in the 18th century.

MacLeod is always careful to focus on the kind of details and facts that will appeal to young readers, as she does movingly in the entry on Tommy Douglas. At age seven, Douglas was struck with a bone disease in his leg. Since his parents couldn’t afford surgery, the only prospect seemed to be amputation. His leg was saved when a doctor operated on Douglas for free, leading Douglas to become a dedicated advocate for universal health care and the founder of Canada’s 1961 Medicare legislation. In the entry on Lucy Maud Montgomery, MacLeod emphasizes Montgomery’s struggle to get Anne of Green Gables published. Rejected numerous times, it was finally published in 1908 by an American publisher and has gone on to sell millions of copies in 20 languages. Kids with a budding entrepreneurial spirit can learn a few lessons from the marketing and retail innovations of Timothy Eaton and cosmetic tycoon Elizabeth Arden in the business section.

The eye-friendly page design is crisp, colourful, and inviting and contains boxed vital stats and quirky facts, and the portraits by John Mantha are expressive and energetic. The book can be read in one swoop or delightfully dipped into: in either case young readers will come away informed, entertained, and inspired.

The author of many picture books and novels for children, Maxine Trottier has a definite bent for historical subjects, having written about, among others, Louis Riel, 18th-century English immigrants to Canada, and Anna Pavlova. The subjects in her new book (Laura Secord, Billy Bishop, Nellie McClung, Frederick Banting, and Wayne Gretzky) are all well known, perhaps even overfamiliar. She succinctly outlines the contours of their life stories, concentrating on the events that relate to and develop the source of their renown.

Trottier’s bios are a mixed bag. The more character-driven bios, which give us a vivid flavour of the person and what drove them to achieve greatness (such as the portraits of Bishop and McClung) are stronger than the more event-driven sketches (such as the Secord and Banting bios). Kids will gain information and role models from both books, but MacLeod’s approach has more brio, immediacy, and dramatic interest.