Canadian history is the focus of two new series aimed at young readers. Dear Canada, based on a U.S. counterpart is published by Scholastic Canada and aimed at readers 8-12, the same market that Penguin Books' Our Canadian Girl targets, also a copycat of a hugely successful American series. But while both Dear Canada and Our Canadian Girl can boast that the first books in the series have been penned by some of the finest Canadian children's book and young adult writers, the similarities end there.
Dear Canada might be aimed at a mid-range readership but the first two books in the series, A Prairie As Wide as the Sea by Sarah Ellis and Jean Little's Orphan at My Door are as sophisticated and strongly independent novels as a series could possibly hope for. Younger readers might, in fact, find these diary-format books a bit of a challenge and it would have been more realistic for Scholastic to position them for readers 10-14. Both books stand out in terms of the serious approach that their authors have obviously taken in melding historical fact into fictional lives. Perhaps this is a result of the fact that both Ellis and Little, as readers will discover, made very personal connection to their subjects¨while researching the period by way of microfilm files, Sarah Ellis discovered a letter that her own mother had written to the children's page of the Regina Leader in 1927; Jean Little had the chance to interview 102 year-old Ethel Crane, just two weeks before her death, who had come to Canada with her brother and sister as a Home Child in 1914. Both books also include an excellent historical overview, following the diary portion of the book, which helps put the novel into perspective as well as mapping and an array of period photographs that add flavour to these fine fictions.
And what fine fiction both these books are. It is the high quality of the writing in both these books that will most move young readers as they fall under the spell of these two fine young heroines¨eleven-year-old London-born Ivy Weatherall, wrestling to come to terms with the very different world of the Canadian West in the late 1920's, and twelve-year-old Home Child Marianna Wilson whose life is revealed to us in the pages of her friend Victoria Cope into whose family Marianna comes as a maid and general dogs body. Ellis and Little both have the gift of making historical fact accessible by way of their talent for storytelling. Not for a moment does the reader doubt the historical truth of these fictitious diaries and these books could certainly stand alone outside of this series as serious historical novels.
The same, alas, cannot be said of Our Canadian Girl. Fine writers like Kathy Stinson and Julie Lawson just don't have enough space to really sink their teeth into the historical worlds that they are attempting to conjure up in these all-too-slight volumes. Stinson's and Lawson's books are certainly far stronger than the works of colleagues Lynne Kositsky and Sharon McKay, but readers no sooner get a feel for the lives of these Canadian girls then¨poof¨they're over. What is most problematic about this series is that it really is nothing more than a formulaic series and that's disappointing. It's also troubling that these stories aren't actually finished and that young readers are going to have a chance to meet these four characters again, but nowhere does Penguin Canada actually share this information with their readers. Penguin appears more interested in steering readers to the Our Canadian Girl website (at www.ourcanadiangirl.ca) than with the books themselves.
Our Canadian Girl does indeed suit a younger reader who is just getting comfortable with tackling chapter books. Each book has an accessible storyline that allows Rachel, Emily, Penelope and Marie-Claire to act as an historical guide. Each focuses on a different aspect of Canadian history¨Rachel, a former slave, is journeying with her mother to a new settlement in Nova Scotia and freedom; Emily discovers the racism inherent in the treatment of Chinese Canadians on Vancouver Island; Penelope lives through the terrifying Halifax Explosion of 1917, while Marie-Claire struggles against the smallpox epidemic that has rocked Montreal in 1885. But these are uneven books in terms of the quality of the writing and their ability to fully recreate these historical moments. Readers, for example, will certainly find Emily and Marie-Claire's stories more credible and engaging than those of Rachel and Penelope. But even in these books, there is more information related to the reader than told through the stories themselves. Our Canadian Girl isn't anything other than a series authored by some good writers but weighed down by the formula. Nothing distinguishes one book from another in terms of historical information¨the same map of Canada graces the front of each book and all four share the same timeline despite the very different historical moments they focus upon.
Dear Canada has got off to an auspicious start that bodes well for what comes next; the emphasis here is on the quality of the books, rather than the series itself and Ellis and Little have created superb historical fiction books. Our Canadian Girl, on the other hand, seems to value marketing rather than merit in this rather lacklustre launch and greater attention to the creation of first-rate historical fiction would certainly help. Dear Canada is a truly Canadian version of a successful US model that works; Our Canadian Girl is an pale imitation that doesn't give its fine authors enough room to really grow their stories. ˛