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Book Reviews

Under the Star

by Jane Yolen; Vlasta van Kampen, illus.

Canada Counts

by Charles Pachter

The enduring appeal of the counting book is that it serves a functional purpose – teaching kids to count – while allowing room for the exploration of just about any theme the authors choose, as well as providing a showcase for illustrators. Just in time for holiday gift-giving, we have two new contributions to the genre, both boasting big-name talent and striking illustrations.

The theme for Under the Star, by veteran American author Jane Yolen and illustrated by Canada’s own Vlasta van Kampen, is the Christmas story. In it, people and animals (and one angel) follow the star to the manger to meet the baby Jesus. “Under the star, under the star, one angel sees a manger afar,” it begins. The same rhyme pattern is repeated on every spread as other travellers appear on the hills surrounding a faraway city.

The repetition will appeal to young children just learning their numbers, and has the added benefit of possibly lulling them to sleep.

The other advantage of this simple, elegant rhyme is that it keeps the focus largely on the illustrations. Van Kampen has already proven herself to be a top-notch children’s illustrator, and her lovely watercolours are once again a delight. Each scene is set on brown hilltops against a deep indigo sky full of stars. Off in the distance we see a town, with white buildings contrasted against green pine trees, and a very tiny manger on the outskirts. (Pine trees? One can forgive van Kampen the misstep here – the setting is less important than the story being told.)

This is a book that knows its audience, that hasn’t forgotten how hard it is to learn to count and to relate those numbers to specific quantities. Once 10 children arrive, the group is complete, and the last spread is a sumptuous image of everyone gathered around the makeshift shelter. Kids will have fun reinforcing what they have learned by finding and recounting each group in the crowd.

Under the Star works as a counting book, as a thematic book, and as a showcase for some beautiful art. While appealing in its own way, Canada Counts is less successful in finding such a balance.

Canada Counts is artist Charles Pachter’s second book for children. His first was last year’s M is for Moose, an alphabet book that used samples of his art – and his truly awful rhymes – to introduce kids to some Canadian icons.

This new title follows the same format, with Pachter’s multimedia works appearing on every page (and yes, more of those terrible rhymes). The images are colourful, striking, and certainly very Canadian. No doubt the success of M is for Moose, and Pachter’s reputation as one of Canada’s best-loved contemporary artists, will guarantee Canada Counts an audience.

As a counting book, though, it has some problems. For one thing, the  count does not stop at the number 10, or even 20. It includes images for 24, 26, 29, 37, 48, and 96, as well as for “hundreds” and “thousands.” While it might be fun for some older kids to challenge themselves to count this high, younger ones may just be confused.

In addition, the images are often not counting-friendly. For example, the 17 cobs of corn are lovely to look at, but hard to distinguish. And even if one does try to enumerate the “hundreds” of birds resting on an icy lake – and you know some kids will want to try – the tally stops at about 150. Does that really constitute hundreds?

There are also entries for two years –1967 and 1982 ­– with images to accompany them (Habitat ’67 and the signing of the Constitution, respectively). These are interesting additions to a book on Canadian icons and images, but they have nothing to do with learning to count.

Perhaps, though, the intended audience for Canada Counts is older kids, and the purpose is to create a portrait of Canada in numbers. Certainly, the copious notes at the back of the book offer lots of information about our history. But if that’s the case, where is today’s Canada? Amid the cottage docks, deck chairs, corn on the cob, Nanaimo bars, hockey sticks, wildlife, and canoes, we find one image of a (headless) woman in a sari, and one of Asian couples dancing. Where are the brown, yellow, and black faces that have transformed the country in the last 50 years? Where are the bustling urban centres that most of us now live in?

Canada Counts may work best as an art book directed more at parents than kids. But even so, many of the images would look better if they did not have to share the page, and were set against something other than a plain white background. (Some of the images seem as though they’ve been flung at the page from a distance.)

Being charitable, one could say there is a little something for everyone here. Canada Counts is often beautiful to look at, and will give many parents and grandparents – or at least wealthy white Boomers ­– a sense of nostalgia and national pride. But the danger in trying to be all things to all people, as Canadians well know, is that you end up struggling to define yourself as anything in particular.

One doubts that is the image of Canada Pachter was trying to convey.


[NB: This review has been altered slightly from its published version.]