AS CONSUMERS, we have been around the seductions and illusions of the market long enough to have become sceptical, if not cynical. And so, the first question we may be inclined to ask about any book being offered these days is: why has this book been written? What is the motivation? I think a book becomes merely and exclusively a commodity when it is written primarily for market reasons. It is, on the other hand, literature when the impulse that created it is internal, arising primarily from the author's needs creative and psychic - and not the market's. The question is particularly pertinent to children's book, which generally (and often necessarily) are produced with a large element of collaboration between publisher and author.
For an example of a book that completely transcends the commodity category, we can, happily, look to Tim Wynne- Jones's Some of the Kinder Planets (Groundwood, 136 pages, $7.95 paper), which, also happily, recently won the Governor General's Award. This collection of short stories for older children is simply wonderful. While the stories are written? at an appropriate language level, and do have child protagonists, there is nothing, in terms of depth or subtlety, that would ghettoize them as children's literature. They are literature, period. Unqualified. Fine writing from a fine writer.
The illustrator Russ Willms received a well-deserved nomination for the Governor General's Award for his work on Brewster Rooster (Kids Can, 36 pages, $11.95 cloth), an appealing story by Berny Lucas.
Brewster, like many becomes rather enamoured of In, talents -- it) this instance the newfound ability to crow -- and his pride dim-t leads to the expected fall. In the end, Brewster's talent enables him to become a hero. The telling is, ~is, as the tale; even though this is Lucas's first book, she already demonstrates t fine car for the rhythms and pace of the children's picture-book.
David McPhail'., Ping & Pong (HarperCollins, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth), on the other hand, seems to tilt toward the commodity side of the equation. The book's cover declares that the book is "based on the poem by Dennis Lee." Lee's brief, delightful, and Carroll-esquely absurd poem, which is slipped in at the back of the book, allowed the assertion that "no one knew, their whole lives through, that Pong was Ping; Ping, Pong" to remain enigmatic, a resonant logical impossibility. Unfortunately, this resonance is flattened and reduced by McPhail's extrapolation and explanation. In graduate school I read about intertextuality and the interpenetration of texts, not to mention the necessity of challenging our notions of authorship, and so I got a kick out of the "Blame Dennis" at the front of the book and the "Blame David" at the end of the book, as well as the author's notes commenting on the adaptation process. But I doubt that the four-year-olds for whom the book is intended will share my appreciation.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki's Tell the World: A Young Environmentalist Speaks Out (Doubleday, 32 pages, $10.95 cloth) is another publishing oddity. Thirteen-year-old Cullis-Suzuki is, of course, the famed David Suzuki's daughter. The book includes the text of her speech at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro held in June, 1992, as well as sections that explain the formation of Cullis-Suzuki's environmentalist group and give pragmatic suggestions for action to other teenage activists. Cullis-Suzuki's speech is perfectly decent rhetoric for a cause most of us Would support. It is, however, nothing new. While the suggestions for activism are sensible and well presented, the young author seems blissfully unaware of how her privileged position as the child of a celebrity has influenced her effectiveness as an environmental activist. This is understandable and forgivable in a youngster. The decision to publish such ephemera is not.
Alexandra Morton's splendid In the Company of Whales: From the Diary of a Whale Watcher (Orca, 64 pages, $16.95 cloth) also takes on environmental concerns, but Morton is a scientist first and the book is an absolute gem. I have never read anything for young readers that so successfully gives a sense of the working life of a scientist. While Morton's language is clear and accessible, she still manages to represent the complexities and uncertainties of scientific research. What is even more remarkable, and moving, is the honesty with which she represents the emotional and psychological challenges her work presents. This book completely transcends the usually pedestrian genre of scientific non-fiction for kids; I recommend it to adults and children alike.
The poet sean o huigin's Scary Poems for Rotten Kids was such a sales success back in 1988 that it helped revivify the children's poetry market -- an achievement that, as a poet, can only applaud. But if A Dozen Million Spills (Black Moss, 24 pages, $4.9 5 paper), illustrated by John Fraser, is an indication of o huigin's style, the success is hard to fathom. In its attention to the downside of kids' experience -- broken legs and toothaches and colds and having no place to Pee -- A Dozen Million Spills can't, thank God, be described as saccharine. But o huigin's thumping, careless rhythms and rambling narratives seem tossed off at best, and rarely if ever touch on the real pain that is an inevitable part of such experiences.
Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet's Estelle and the Self-Esteem Machine (Red Deer College Press/Raincoast, 36 pages, $14.95 cloth) seems to be one of those books that, however well intentioned, ends LIP satisfying the needs of adults, not children. Bannatyne-Cugnet's interest in ridiculing psychobabble may indeed meet with sympathy in the parents who read this picturebook to their kids, but the kids will likely he left bemused, if not irritated. The effervescent illustrations by Leslie Bell are a pleasure, but are not enough to redeem the book for its intended audience.
While the text of David Bouchard's If You're Not from the Prairie (Raincoast/SummerWild, 32 pages, $19.95 cloth), with illustrations by Henry Ripplinger, is rooted in the physical, and child -appropriate, I did not find myself engaged by this book. I am from the Prairie, have felt the wind, and the cold, and heard the grass, as Bouchard exhorts one to do. While I am sympathetic to the author's desire to represent the special qualities of the Prairie reality, the plodding verse and parsimonious spirit of the book don't do justice to either the culture or the landscape.
It is clear that both the publisher and author had good intentions, but Song Nan Zhang's A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night: An Autobiography in Art (Tundra, 48 pages, $19.95 cloth) is in the end a book that is as frustrating as it is intriguing. The story is a valuable and, in our culture, rare window on the experience of growing up in Communist China, and the author has produced a readable and fair-minded text to accompany the illustrations. However, the story moves so rapidly over the shattering events endured that the blend of personal and historical doesn't, finally, come off. For older students who are studying Chinese history, this book will be an appealing, if tangential, auxiliary text.