Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

What Will the Robin Do Then?: Winter Tales

by Jean Little

The title of Jean Little’s newest book, What Will the Robin Do Then?, is taken from a nursery rhyme whose next words are “poor thing.” Little’s children could often be best described at first as “poor things.” The child in her first novel, Mine for Keeps (1962), has cerebral palsy, the girl in From Anna (1972) is visually impaired, as is Jean Little, and the young boy in Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird,/I> (1984) experiences, at age 11, the trauma of his father’s death by cancer. These titles are only samples of Jean Little’s prolific body of prose, but the themes mentioned are constant ones. Perhaps the apotheosis of her work to date is her autobiography, Little by Little, a memoir, as she states in her author’s note, that is “compounded of both truth and imagination.” It is the story of her bittersweet childhood, her education, school and college days, her family life, and her first job as a teacher of handicapped children. There are moments of humour and a great deal of love, but dominating it all is Jean’s determination to rise above her difficulties with vision. It is the spirit of her own life that she gives to her fictional children. They, too, make a whole life for themselves.

Little has played and still plays an important role in Canadian children’s literature. In a critical sense, two of her early books, Mine for Keeps and Home from Far from the 1960s, broke the pattern of pleasant domestic realism epitomized by most current writers at the time to introduce children who face problems of adjustment even when surrounded by loving family and friends. And certainly with the advent of Jean Little many more children in Canada were able to say, “Now I have a book about a child just like me.” Little’s forte is to put her readers in tune with children who are somehow challenged either physically or mentally or who are facing some crisis in their lives. Few writers have Little’s genuine knowledge and experience of the child mind, each one individual. The author does not go for miracles and sudden conversions. Her characters make it “little by little.”

What Will the Robin Do Then?, a collection of short stories and poems, is not vintage Jean Little but it is typical Jean Little, which her many fans will appreciate. All 11 stories tell of children in crisis, some minor rather than major, but all of them give the collection variety. They were written over many years and put away in a drawer with her poems. They represent, in a way, part of her success as a writer. As she explains in : “I saw my world and my life as something that belonged to me, and began to put away small scraps of time in a place where I could take them out and look at them whenever I needed to remember.” These stories comprise such memories and their origins are briefly detailed in the preface.

Although both stories and poems have had a long waiting period, the collection, as a whole, shows evidence of hasty selection and editing. The Christmas story, “A Mantle of Praise,” could certainly have been omitted as it is so transparently the Nativity story that all discovery for the reader is lost. Some of the stories, especially “What Will the Robin Do Then?,” are overly long, almost begging for the novel format rather than that of the short story. The subtitle, Winter Tales, is an artifice rather than being central to the nub of the stories. Jean Little is not a landscape artist; her strength lies in depicting the inner landscape of children’s lives. As with some of the stories, some of the poems needed more attention – for example, to improve banal rhyme schemes and simple scanning.

Yet what is evident above all here is Little’s knowledge of children. She is in tune with their smallest disappointments as well as their major achievements. She trusts in the end their good sense and judgment and innate goodness. Above all, she knows that, while their infirmities cannot be cured, the spirit must be healed. Omitting the entire phrase of the original nursery rhyme in Little’s title was undoubtedly appropriate: Little’s children are not “poor things.”


Reviewer: Sheila Egoff

Publisher: Viking Canada


Price: $19.99

Page Count: 224 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-670-88084-1

Released: Nov.

Issue Date: 1999-2


Age Range: ages 10–13