Children's Literature in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Children's Literature in English

Children's literature in English, literature for children up to early adolescence, has been written since the mid-19th century.
Ernest Thompson Seton, author, artist
Along with Charles G.D. Roberts, Seton gave the animal story its distinctive form (Library and Archives Canada/C-9485).
Ida and the Wool Smugglers
Illustration by Ann Blades, published by Tundra Books (courtesy McClelland and Stewart).
Kusugak, Michael
Kusugak hunted caribou, seals and whales with his parents by dog team when he was young. He relates these stories in his children's books (courtesy Maclean's).
Mary of Mile 18
Illustration by Ann Blades, published by Tundra Books (courtesy M&S).

Children's Literature in English

Children's literature in English, literature for children up to early adolescence, has been written since the mid-19th century. It was originally a literature in which portrayals of life in the new country - confrontations with and adaptations to the landscape and the native peoples, colonizing the territories and then creating and developing a nation - were in search of appropriate vehicles of expression. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the vehicles were generally those fashionable in Great Britain. At the turn of the century the animal story, the first distinctively Canadian genre, appeared. In the last half of the 20th century, authors and illustators have used a variety of genres to reflect the geographical and cultural diversity of Canadian life.

The Animal Story

Although animals had been mentioned in earlier literature, the works of Sir Charles G.D. ROBERTS and Ernest Thompson SETON gave the animal story its distinctive form. Seton's highly popular Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) influenced Roberts, whose The Kindred of the Wild appeared in 1902 and Red Fox in 1905. Drawing on their observations of wildlife and their study of Darwinistic theories of natural selection, both writers focused on the lives of superior members of various species. In Red Fox, Roberts combined exceptional strength and intelligence in an individual fox, making him the novel's hero. To Seton, the important fact of animal life was death, often at the hands of man and always tragic. Among later wild-animal stories that end with death are Roderick HAIG-BROWN'sKi-yu: A Story of Panthers (1934) and Fred Bodsworth's Last of the Curlews (1955).

Pets have also provided the focus for many children's books. One of the best-known early children's novels, Margaret Marshall Saunders's Beautiful Joe (1894), is the "autobiography" of a "cur" who, having been rescued from a cruel master, lives a long and happy life. Farley MOWAT's The Dog Who Wouldn't Be (1957) is the humorous story of Mutt, a pet who "at some early moment of his existence ... concluded there was no future in being a dog." Sheila BURNFORD'SThe Incredible Journey (1960) is the account of a 400 km trek across northern Ontario undertaken by 2 dogs and a cat.

The Adventure Story

The adventure story, a major form of Victorian children's literature, influenced Canadian books in the 19th century and, to a lesser degree, the 20th. Emphasizing the goodness of the British Empire, Christianity and physical courage, such British novels as Frederick Marryat's The Settlers in Canada (1844) and G.A. Henty's With Wolfe in Canada (1886) were immensely popular in Britain and the colonies, and shaped many young Canadians' views of their country. R.M. Ballantyne's firsthand account of the fur trade, Hudson's Bay (1848), was followed by his novels Snowflakes and Sunbeams (1856) and Ungava (1858). The vast landscape, populated by fierce wild animals and heathen savages, was supposedly won for civilization by people such as the young white heroes and heroines of the novels of these authors.

Of 19th-century stories, one of the most interesting is Catharine Parr TRAILL'sThe Canadian Crusoes (1852), which combines a knowledge of the wilderness north of Lake Ontario with elements of the survival story made popular by Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. In addition to describing how the 3 central figures, all teenagers, secure the basic necessities, the book portrays their strong belief in divine protection and their rescue of a native girl to whom they teach the tenets of Christianity. The popularity of the traditional adventure story during the early 20th century (eg, Seton's Two Little Savages, 1906; Alan Sullivan's Brother Eskimo, 1921, and Brother Blackfoot, 1937) may account for the appearance of many of its traits in such novels as Haig-Brown's Starbuck Valley Winter (1943), Mowat's Lost in the Barrens (1956) and James HOUSTON'sFrozen Fire (1977). In each story the male hero grows to maturity, drawing on lessons learned through meeting native people and coping with the harsh wilderness. Tony German's Tom Penny (1977) and Bill Freeman's Shantymen of Cache Lake (1975) combine historical backgrounds and foregrounds of danger and suspense as youthful heroes confront the elements and evil characters.

Historical Fiction

There is no self-conscious tradition in Canadian fiction of mythologizing major historical characters and events as there is in American children's literature. Thus, in historical fiction, Canadian authors cannot relate their narratives with the confidence that their young readers will have a general familiarity with major eras or events. Certain periods of Canadian history (eg, the War of 1812 and the North-West Rebellion) seem to be favourites in novels. The former has been treated in Barbara and Heather Bramwell's Adventure at the Mill (1963) and John F. Hayes's Treason at York (1949); the latter in W.T. Cutt's On the Trail of Long Tom (1970) and Jan Truss's A Very Small Rebellion (1977). The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are portrayed in J.W. Chalmers's Horseman in Scarlet (1961); the LOYALISTS' escape to Canada in Mary Alice and John Downie's Honor Bound (1971), and the Cariboo Gold Rush in Christie Harris's Cariboo Trail (1957). In Underground to Canada (1977), Barbara SMUCKER describes the dangerous journey to Ontario of 3 slaves who have escaped from a Southern plantation. Many contemporary authors have created historical novels about the first half of this century. Barbara Smucker's Days of Terror (1979) is an account of the struggles of Mennonites who have fled their Ukrainian village and come to Canada during WWI. Jean Little, in Listen for the Singing (1977), details the tensions of a German-Canadian family during WWII. Myra Paperny's family story The Wooden People (1976) is set in Alberta in the 1920s, and Brian Doyle's Up to Low (1982) and Angel Square (1986) are based on the author's 1940s eastern Ontario boyhood.

Set in rural Alberta during the Depression, Cora Taylor's Summer of the Mad Monk (1994) presents a young teenager's encounter with a Russian blacksmith he believes to be the famous Czarist leader Rasputin. Paul Yee, in Curses of the Third Uncle (1986), deals with the impact the Chinese revolution of 1909 has on a Chinese Canadian girl. Hockey Bat Harris (1985), by Geoffrey Bilson, and Kit Pearson's The Sky is Falling (1989), Looking at the Moon (1991) and The Lights Go On Again (1993) recount the struggles of British children evacuated to Canada during WWII. Joy KOGAWA'sNaomi's Road (1986) is based on the author's own experience of being interned as a Japanese-Canadian during WWII.

Some of the most distinguished historical fiction for children is found in books dealing with the native peoples, both before and after European contact. Often these stories centre on the rites of passage, as in HAIG-BROWN'sThe Whale People (1962), in which a Nootka youth is thrust into a position of authority after the death of his father. In Edith Sharp's Nkwala (1958), a Salish boy searches for a vision to guide him into adulthood. Cliff Faulknor's trilogy, The White Calf (1965), The White Peril (1966) and The Smoke Horse (1968), is set on the prairies just before and during the arrival of Europeans. Stories dealing with contacts between native and European cultures include J.F. Hayes's Buckskin Colonist (1947), Doris ANDERSON'sBlood Brothers (1967) and Harris's Forbidden Frontier (1968). Jan Hudson's Sweetgrass (1984) combines historical research and a feminist viewpoint in detailing the life of a young Blackfoot woman in the early 19th century. Kevin Major's Blood Red Ochre (1989) draws parallels between the life of a contemporary Newfoundland native girl and her Beothuk ancestors.

Writers of biography and historical nonfiction have always had to avoid the pitfalls of accurate but dry scholarship, and exciting but inaccurate fictionalization. Among those biographies that have avoided the dangers are Haig-Brown's Captain of the Discovery: The Story of Captain George Vancouver (1956), Kay Hill's And Tomorrow the Stars: The Story of John Cabot (1968) and Roy DANIELLS'sAlexander Mackenzie and the North West (1969). Accurate and lively histories for young readers include Pierre BERTON'sThe Golden Trail (1954), T.M. Longstreth's The Scarlet Force (1953) and William Toye's The St. Lawrence (1959), and Janet Lunn and Christopher Moore's The Story of Canada (1992). Although native peoples have been sensitively treated in fiction and in adaptations of folklore, they have not, with the exception of Harris's Raven's Cry (1966), been the subject of major biographies or histories for children.

The School Story and Social Realism

Domestic and school stories and the problem novel have not been as popular in Canada as in Britain and the US, but there are important works in this area. Ralph Connor (Charles W. GORDON), in Glengarry School Days (1902), and Nellie MCCLUNG, in Sowing Seeds in Danny (1908), described the lives of young people growing up in small Canadian towns. Now criticized for their sentimentality and excessive moral earnestness, these books nonetheless reflect the daily activities, cultural climate and reading tastes of the period. L.M. MONTGOMERY's Anne of Green Gables, considered by many critics to be the only classic of Canadian children's literature, appeared in 1908. Although it too has been criticized for its sentimentality, in the lively presentation of an ebullient heroine and the difficult process of her socialization it remains one of the most widely read Canadian children's books.

The genre of social realism, portraying the lives of relatively average children and the modern problems they confront, has grown rapidly since 1970. Jean Little, who has a severe visual handicap, has chronicled the lives of young people with physical problems - eg, in Mine for Keeps (1962) and From Anna (1972), and in Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird (1985) has sensitively portrayed a boy's reaction to his father's death. Kevin Major's Hold Fast (1978) and Far From Shore (1980) deal with troubled adolescent boys who are in conflict with themselves and their Newfoundland society. The relationship between native peoples and other Canadians is considered in John Craig's No Word for Good-bye (1969). Native author Beatrice Culleton powerfully presents the life of a contemporary Métis woman in In Search of April Raintree (1983). Bryan Doyle's Hey, Dad (1978) and You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove (1979) focus on the troubled relationships between parents and children, while in Cora Taylor's Julie (1985) a mother must learn to accept her daughter's psychic powers. Diana Wieler's Bad Boy (1989) is about the conflicts a young hockey player experiences when he discovers troubling facts about a teammate, and Chelsea, in Julie Lawson's Fires Burning (1994), is forced to reveal to her mother the secret of the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her stepfather. Julie Johnston, in Adam and Eve and Pinch-Me (1994) and Tim Wynne-Jones in The Maestro (1995) show how troubled teenagers acquire fuller senses of self-worth and appreciation of others after leaving disfunctional homes.

Most of the POPULAR LITERATURE read by Canadian children has been written in Britain or the US. There are exceptions. Mary Grannan's Just Mary Stories (1942) and Maggie Mullins and Mr. McGarrity (1952) are collections of humorous fantasy stories based on her long-running CBC radio series. During the 1940s, Leslie McFarlane wrote several volumes of the Hardy Boys series under the pen-name of Franklin W. Dixon. Two recent authors are also significant. In such books as Murder on the Canadian (1976), Terror in Winnipeg (1979) and The Green Gables Detectives (1987), Eric Wilson mixes Canadian settings and current social problems into the adventures of Tom and Liz Austen, youthful detectives. Gordon Korman, who began publishing in his early teens, has created humorous stories about teenagers in This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall! (1978), Go Jump in the Pool (1979) and Macdonald Hall Goes Hollywood (1991).


In the development of Canadian fantasy since WWII, many of the best writers have turned to the wilderness and to the native people's spiritual beliefs, as in Catherine Anthony Clark's fantasies, including The Golden Pine Cone (1950), The Sun Horse (1951) and The Diamond Feather (1962). Christie Harris links modern science and old beliefs in Secret in the Stlalakum Wild (1972) and Sky Man on the Totem Pole? (1975). Monica Hughes emphasizes the native reverence for both nature and the past in Beyond the Dark River (1979). Set in the 21st century after Edmonton has been devastated, presumably by nuclear war, the novel treats the relationship between a young Hutterite and a native healer. Hughes has also written science fiction, including The Keeper of the Isis Light (1980), The Guardian of Isis (1981) and The Isis Pedlar (1982), set on a planet inhabited by fugitives from an overcrowded, polluted Earth who have degenerated into fearful and superstitious beings. Ruth Nichols has used rugged Canadian landscapes in A Walk Out of the World (1969) and The Marrow of the World (1972), in both of which children undertake arduous journeys from Earth to the alternate universes in which they were born.

Other works of fantasy include Pierre Berton's The Secret World of Og (1961), which portrays the adventures of children who travel down a tunnel found under the floor of their playhouse and enter a strange land. Mordecai RICHLER'sJacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975), describes the dream of an insecure child who becomes a hero after he is sent to the children's prison. Janet Lunn's The Root Cellar (1981), Kit Pearson's A Handful of Time (1987), Margaret Buffie's Who Is Francis Rain? (1987), Cora Taylor's The Doll (1987) and Julie Lawson's White Jade Tiger (1993) are time-slip fantasies in which troubled girls find themselves in the past, meeting earlier generations of their families. Through coming to understand their roots, they are better able to cope with their present problems. In Welwyn Wilton Katz's Out of the Dark (1995), a boy grieving over the death of his mother encounters ancient Norse explorers on the coast of Newfoundland.

Katz, in Witchery Hill (1984) and Sun God, Moon Witch (1986), sends her young heros and heroines to the Channel Islands and western England respectively, where they develop inner strengths while confronting supernatural powers. Donn Kushner's The Violin Maker's Gift (1980) is about a magical bird who can predict the future. While it does not include actual magic, Michael Bedard's Red Work (1992) deals with the occult science of alchemy and the effect it has on the lives of 2 lonely Toronto teenagers.


Canadian folktales for children can be divided into European tales adapted by Canadian writers, indigenous folktales of European settlers and reworkings of Indian and Inuit myths, legends and folktales. Two early collections, Cyrus Macmillan's Canadian Wonder Tales (1918) and Canadian Fairy Tales (1922), contain stories from each of the 3 categories, although most are derived from French Canadian and native tales. The tales reflect early 20th-century tastes, often written in the romantic manner that was popular in late 19th-century England. Canadian versions of the tales of legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan appear in Paul Bunyan: Super Hero of the Lumber Jacks (1980) by John D. Robins and Paul Bunyan on the West Coast (1995) by Tom Henry. Legends of the Maritime provinces were collected by Helen CREIGHTON in Bluenose Ghosts (1957). Marius Barbeau's The Golden Phoenix (tr 1958), is a collection of French Canadian tales, two of which - The Princess of Tomboso (1960), illustrated by Frank Newfeld, and "Jacques the Woodcutter," adapted as The Singing Basket (1990,) by Kit Pearson and illustrated by Ann Blades - have appeared as picture books. Newfeld also adapted and illustrated the Nova Scotia tale Simon and the Golden Sword (1976). Traditional European tales retold and illustrated by Canadians include The Miraculous Hind (1975) and Petrouchka (1980) by Elizabeth Cleaver; Cinderella (1969) by Alan Suddon; and The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Lunn, illustrated by Lazlo Gal (1979); Mollie Whuppie and the Giant, adapted and illustrated by Robin Muller (1982), and Hansel and Gretel, adapted and illustrated by Ian Wallace (1994). Ludmilla Zeman has adapted and illustrated the ancient Sumerian epic "Gilgamesh" in 3 books: Gilgamesh the King (1992), The Revenge of Ishtar (1993) and The Last Quest of Gilgamesh (1995).

Several authors have adapted tales from their non-Canadian heritages. Tololwa Mollel, a Maasai from Tanzania, tells the legend of the morning star in The Orphan Boy (1990). Tales from Gold Mountain (1989) contains Paul Yee's versions of stories told by Chinese Canadians at the end of the 19th century. Meguido Zola draws on his eastern European Jewish background in A Dream of Promise: A Folktale in Hebrew and English (1980) and Only the Best (1981). A native of Grenada, Ricardo Keens-Douglas tells the story of a boy's encounter with a magical being in The Nutmeg Princess (1992).

The collection of Inuit and native oral material began shortly after initial European contact. However, because of the strong Christian emphasis in children's literature well into the 20th century, adaptations of native folktales for children were relatively few. During the last of half of this century, in part because of a general increase in awareness of minority cultures, there has been an outpouring of retold native legends. The most significant earlier writers in this trend were Christie Harris and James Houston. Beginning with Once Upon a Totem (1963), Harris wrote 7 collections of stories based on legends of the Northwest Coast. Although much longer and containing far greater character development than her sources, the tales reflect her familiarity with the rugged landscape and the cultural beliefs of the peoples. Houston's stories, including Tikta'liktak (1965) and The White Archer (1967), draw on local legends heard during his 12 years in the Arctic. Other notable collections of native tales are Frances Fraser's retelling of Blackfoot legends in The Bear Who Stole the Chinook (1959); Dorothy Reid's Tales of Nanabozho (1963), a recasting of Ojibwa myths; and K.L. Hill's Glooscap and His Magic (1963), accounts of the Wabanaki hero-god. William Toye has retold and Elizabeth Cleaver illustrated several native tales, including The Mountain Goats of Temlaham (1969) and The Fire Stealer (1979). Cleaver has also retold and illustrated the Inuit legend The Enchanted Caribou (1985), an Inuit legend.

In recent years a growing number of native writers have retold the tales of their own people, helping to preserve elements of a past in danger of being forgotten. In Son of Raven, Son of Deer (1967) George CLUTESI has adapted Vancouver Island stories and, in Tales the Elders Told (1981) by Basil Johnston, Ojibwa legends are retold. Maria Campbell, in Little Badger and the Fire Spirit (1977), has created her own version of a plains pourquoi legend. Mohawk author-illustrator C.J. Taylor has adapted myths and legends of several native cultures in How Two-Feather was saved from loneliness (1990) and The monster from the swamp (1995). In A Promise is a Promise (1990, with Robert MUNSCH) and Hide and Sneak (1992), both illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka, Inuit author Michael Kusugak has linked his people's folklore with the adventures of a modern child.


Although there is a long tradition of Canadian children's fiction, there were few widely known Canadian children's poets or poems until the 1970s. Poetic works written for adults by Thomas D'Arcy MCGEE, Pauline JOHNSON, Bliss CARMAN, Robert SERVICE and others were frequently memorized by children. Two popular anthologies, The Wind Has Wings (1968, rev 1984), edited by M.A. Downie and Barbara Robertson, and All Kinds of Everything (1973), edited by Louis DUDEK, contained poems by well-known adult Canadian poets. Till All the Stars Have Fallen (1989), edited by David Booth, and Do Whales Jump at Night? (1990), edited by Florence McNeil, are later anthologies containing children's poems by Canadian authors. It was not until 1974, with the appearance of Dennis LEE's Alligator Pie and Nicholas Knock and Other People, that a group of poems written specifically for Canadian children achieved a wide audience. The humour and nonsense in these volumes and in Lee's Garbage Delight (1977) and Jelly Belly (1983) is also characteristic of much other Canadian children's poetry, including Susan Musgrave's Gulliband (1974), Sue Ann Alderson's Bonnie McSmithers (You're Driving Me Dithers) (1974) and Al Pittman's Down by Jim Long's Stage (1976), and Sheree Fitch's I Am Small (1994) and Mabel Murple (1995). Other recent collections include Lois Simmie's Auntie's Knitting a Baby (1984), Robert Heidbreder's Don't Eat Spiders (1985), and Tim Wynne-Jones's Mischief City (1986). bp Nichol's Once A Lullaby (1983), sean o'huigan's the ghost horse of the mounties (1983), and Leo Yerxa's Last Leaf, First Snoflake to Fall (1993) are book-length editions of single poems.

Many illustrators have created book-length editions of other's well-known poems. These include Ron Berg's version of Eugene Field's lullaby, Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (1985); Ted HARRISON's illustrated editions of 2 Service classics, The Cremation of Sam McGee (1986) and The Shooting of Dan McGrew (1988); and Robin Muller's expanded, illustrated treatment of Row Row Row Your Boat (1993). Frances Tyrrell hs illustrated Father Bréuf's The Huron Carol (1990). There are 2 Canadian illustrated versions of traditional Mother Goose rhymes: Barbara Reid's Sing a Song of Mother Goose (1987) and Maryann Kovalski's Sharon, Lois & Bram's Mother Goose (1985).

Picture Books

Because of high production costs and a relatively small market, few picture books appeared in Canada until the 1970s. At that time, Montréal's Tundra Books published a number of award-winning volumes. Ann BLADES'sMary of Mile 18 (1971) and William KURELEK'sA Prairie Boy's Winter (1973) and A Prairie Boy's Summer (1975) are the best known. Others include Shizuye Takashima's A Child in Prison Camp (1971) and Ted Harrison's Children of the Yukon (1977). Blades has also written A Boy of Taché (1973) and has illustrated several others, including Betty Waterton's A Salmon for Simon (1978) and Sue Ann Alderson's Ida and the Wool Smugglers (1987). During the 1980s and 1990s a larger number of fine Canadian picture books have been published. Two outstanding newer artists are Ian Wallace (Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance, 1984, and Very Last First Time, written by Jan Andrews, 1985), and Ken Nutt, pseudonym for Eric Beddows, who illustrated for Tim Wynne-Jones's award winning Zoom at Sea (1983), Zoom Away (1985) and Zoom Upstream (1992). Michael Martchenko has supplied illustrations for the books of popular storyteller Robert Munsch, including The Paperbag Princess (1980) and 50 Below Zero. Paul Morin has illustrated retellings of traditional tales from many lands, including Tololwa M. Mollel's The Orphan Boy (1990) and Julie Lawson's The Dragon's Pearl (1992).


Since the mid-1970s, a number of good Canadian plays have been published. In 1975 Rolf Kalman edited A Collection of Canadian Plays: Volume 4, a gathering of 10 dramas for children, including Eric NICOL's "The Clam Made a Face," and Carol BOLT's"Cyclone Jack." In Joyce Doolitles' Eight Plays for Young People (1984) are Brian Paisley's "Tikta'Liktak" and Jan Truss's "Cornelius Dragon." Native people are the subject of Henry Beissel's Inook and the Sun (1974) and of Dennis Foon's The Windigo (1978).

Although many books bought in Canada are still by English and American authors, Canadian writers are becoming more widely read. This is due in part to the increasing national consciousness manifested since the centennial of Confederation in 1967. However, many reasons for the growth of Canadian children's literature are to be found within the field itself. The CANADA COUNCIL has encouraged writers through a series of grants and the sponsorship of reading tours. In addition a number of LITERARY PRIZES recognizing meritorious works, authors and illustrators have been established, beginning with the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians' Book of the Year for Children in 1947. Other major awards include the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Medal for outstanding illustration, the Governor General's awards, the Canada Council Children's Literature prizes (1975), the Canadian Authors Association's Award, the Vicky Metcalf Award and the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award.

Several SMALL PRESSES have published extensive lines of children's books. Among these are Annick Press (Toronto), Kids Can Press (Toronto), Orca Books (Victoria) and Red Deer College Press (Alberta). The children's magazine Owl began publication in 1976 and its companion Chickadee in 1979.

Academic Study

Serious academic study of Canadian children's literature has also developed since 1967. Sheila Egoff's The Republic of Childhood (1967, revised in 1975 and 1990) and Elizabeth Waterston's Children's Literature in Canada (1992) survey the major genres. Jon C. Stott and Raymond E. Jones's Canadian Books for Children contains biographical essays on authors and illustrators, while Writers on Writing (1989), edited by David Booth, is a collection of writers', artists' and publishers' statements about their work. The journal Canadian Children's Literature began publication in 1975. Canadian books are regularly studied in children's literature classes in Canadian universities, and the Children's Book Centre was established in 1976 to publicize Canadian children's books and to co-ordinate the annual Children's Book Festival.


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