Take a close look at this Canadian $5 bill. Yes, it's got hockey players on it, but if you look very closely at the left-hand side, you will see some words: "Les hivers de mon enfance étaient des saison longues, longues. Nous vivions en trois lieux: l’école, l’église et la patinoire; mais la vraie vie était sur la patinoire. / The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places—the school, the church and the skating rink—but our real life was on the skating rink."
This is not just a paean to Canada's national pastime, it is a quote from The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, illustrated by Sheldon Cohen and translated by Sheila Fischman. It is a children's book.
Yes, there is a quote from a children's book on the Canadian national currency. How cool is that!? Truly, Canada is a country that takes its children's books seriously.
Although they don't get the same kind of hoopla in the United States that American publishers are able to generate, Canadian children's publishers have been quietly working for years, turning out high-quality books that often tackle subjects American publishers might avoid. Their visual aesthetic is likewise frequently one not seen in American children's books, often venturing into the sweetly surreal. I see a mind-boggling number of books every year, and I typically find those from Canada to be as bracingly refreshing as a good Alberta clipper.
So here, in celebration of Canada Day—July 1—please enjoy this sampling of recent books from our northern neighbor, arranged alphabetically by publisher.
From Annick: BIRTHDAY SUIT, by Olive Senior and illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes.
Who needs swimming trunks? Johnny likes to run around naked, and so would you if you lived on a tropical island surrounded by the beautiful blue sea. But now that he's 4, mom insists on clothes at all times. She buys him red trunks for playing in the water. As soon as her back is turned, however, he's out of them and back to the titular birthday suit. He can "undo everything his mom uses to lock him in," from buttons to "the thingamajig that Johnny rips for that lovely tearing sound." It takes a man-to-man talk with dad for Johnny to realize that he really does want to be a big boy. He puts on his overalls and everybody claps. Now he has fun with clothes, zipping and tying and snapping (as well as unzipping, untying and unsnapping). Still, whenever he gets under the sea... Fernandes' bright, busy paintings are a good match for the buoyant and ample text, which is full of phonic riffs that make the tale a terrific read-aloud. (Picture book. 3-5)
From Groundwood: JIMMY THE GREATEST!, by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng and translated by Elisa Amado.
In a thought-provoking twist on the usual immigrant story, a village lad elects to stay put. Though Jimmy’s town is just a scattering of shacks on a broad beach, there is a tiny gym, owned by Don Apolinar. He gives Jimmy a box full of books and clippings about Muhammad Ali that sparks a yen in the boy to become a boxer. But when Don Apolinar departs for the big city, where there are "real jobs," Jimmy decides to stay, taking over the gym and adding a library to it. “Maybe one day he’ll get a match,” the narrative concludes, but then it gives Jimmy the last words: “Listen to me. / This is my town. / … / We dance and we box / and we don’t / sit around waiting / to go someplace else.” Idealized as it may be, the idyllic setting and smiling, bright-eyed faces on view in the illustrations make his choice easy to understand. Eye-opening inspiration in this unassuming import from Colombia. (Picture book. 6-8)
From Kids Can: VIRGINIA WOLF, by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.
“One day my sister Virginia woke up feeling wolfish. She made wolf sounds and did strange things,” begins narrator Vanessa. Huddled in bed, only pointy ears showing, is a wolf. Virginia’s unable to bear the bright-yellow gingham of Vanessa’s dress or the sound of Vanessa brushing her own teeth. This is potent misery: “The whole house sank. Up became down. Bright became dim.” Vanessa creeps into bed to comfort her sister, but what finally helps is painting. At the wolf’s suggestion, Vanessa paints a whimsical, expanding world called “Bloomsberry,” bursting with blossoms, birds and magic. The wolf—previously a black near-silhouette with snout and tail, wearing a dress—morphs back into a girl. Knowledge of Virginia Woolf and her painter-sister Vanessa Bell is unnecessary; this works beautifully as a bad-day/bad-mood or animal-transformation tale, while readers who know actual depression will find it handled with tenderly forceful aplomb. (Picture book. 5-10)
From Orca: DOORS IN THE AIR, by David Weale and illustrated by Pierre Pratt.
A small boy muses on the power of imagination to carry you away from ordinary life. After enumerating usual features of his home—roof, walls, beds, tables, brooms, books and hooks—the narrator reveals his fascination with doors. “Doors open wide / To let me pass through / Like rain down a spout / Or smoke up a flue.” Pratt's quirky acrylic paintings show a sharply angular house and a variety of commonplace objects. They also introduce the imaginary creatures that accompany the narrator on his journey: a small stuffed elephant, a red, white and blue bird, a goldfish and a fanciful, ostrich-like creature. A wordless double-page spread halfway through the tale shows them escaping into the world of imagination. Surreal in its effect, this celebration of the creative mind encourages young readers and listeners to open doors of their own. (Picture book. 4-8)
From Owlkids: MARTIN ON THE MOON, by Martine Audet, illustrated by Luc Melanson and translated by Sarah Quinn.
Daydreams on the first day of school lead to a happy ending thanks to a refreshingly responsive teacher. Suppressing anxiety, Martin’s mind goes a mile a minute, associations flowing freely. The teacher’s pink cheeks make him think of Mum Mum, a thought that leads the young boy to recall her beloved smile—“as wide as the river.” Water is fertile territory for a range of precisely described images and emotions, communicated with aurally pleasing words subtly constructed as free verse. When the teacher interrupts his reverie by asking if he’s on the moon and whom he’s blowing kisses to, a pebble from the river gives him the courage to share his thoughts. The teachable moment involves the class drawing kisses (X’s) on the board along with the first letter of their names, the first step towards friendship. Large, round heads, recurring moons and a parting circular view underscore Martin’s marvelous interior world, as do the cheerfully surreal scenes of raining flowers and a smiling sky. (Picture book. 4-7)
From Pajama Press: LAST AIRLIFT: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
As Saigon was falling to the North Vietnamese in April 1975, those who were caring for babies and children orphaned by the war worried about the fate of their charges. A series of evacuation flights called “Operation Babylift” carried several thousand young children to other countries around the world. Skrypuch tells the story of the last Canadian airlift through the memories of one child, Son Thi Anh Tuyet. Nearly 8 years old, the sad-eyed girl on the cover had lived nearly all her life in a Catholic orphanage. With no warning, she and a number of the institution babies were taken away, placed on an airplane and flown to a new world. Tuyet’s memories provide poignant, specific details. The nuns expected her to be useful; she helped with the babies. Naturally, she assumed that John and Dorothy Morris had chosen her to help with their three children; instead, she had acquired a family. Tuyet’s experience is the author's focus. It personalizes the babylift without sensationalizing it. Immediate and compelling, this moving refugee story deserves a wide audience. (Nonfiction. 10-15)
From Second Story Press: YESTERDAY'S DEAD, by Pat Bourke
As the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918 in Toronto reaches epidemic proportion, the local newspapers run lengthy lists of “yesterday’s dead,” a chilling backdrop to 13-year-old maidservant Meredith’s personal struggle as the disease ravages the household where she works. Tasked not only with helping in the kitchen but also with watching the motherless youngest child in the family, lively 6-year-old Harry, Meredith mostly manages, struggling only with the middle daughter, severely spoiled Maggie. As the disease begins to overwhelm the city, Dr. Waterton is called away, leaving Parker and the eldest son, Jack (to whom Meredith feels a certain attraction) in charge. Then family and staff begin to fall ill, and responsibility finally shifts almost solely to Meredith. Meredith’s very human fluctuations between despair and determination in the face of tragedy add considerably to the authenticity of her character. A gripping depiction of a tragic epidemic and the sometimes-heroic responses of those affected. (Historical fiction. 10-15)
From Tradewind: THE RUNAWAY, by Glen Huser
A teenage near-orphan comes of age in a Depression-era Chautauqua—a “week-long extravaganza of entertainment and educational enlightenment” that traveled to towns that could cover the cost of putting on the programs. When his father dies and his mother is severely injured in a car crash, 14-year-old Leroy “Doodelbug” Barnstable goes off to live with his Aunt Alvina and his cousins Virgil and Albert. But his cousins are abusive, and Leroy soon runs off. [T]hat Chautauqua summer is a life changer. Musicians, magicians, storytellers, comedians, actors and actresses perform all day long, and Doodlebug earns his keep by putting the artistic skills that are the source of his nickname to work in entertaining the little kids who arrived each day. Doodlebug gets to travel, meet new people and fall in love. The first-person narration lets readers in on his new experiences and feelings, and soon Doodlebug feels like an old friend, and the world of the Chautauqua circuit comes alive. Intrigue, romance and fun leaven this tale of a good-hearted runaway boy beginning to find his way in the world. (Historical fiction. 9-14)
From Tundra: THE GREEN MAN, by Michael Bedard. Fifteen-year-old Ophelia, known as O, encounters the unexpected when she spends a transformative summer with her aunt [Emily], a poet and the proprietor of a secondhand bookshop called the Green Man, “where extraordinary things [happen].” Though “always a poet, always a little odd,” Emily’s recent heart attack has left her even more “off-center.” Emily’s eccentricity concerns O, who has recently starting writing poetry. Arriving at the Green Man, O finds Emily frail and distracted. As O tries to restore order to Emily’s disintegrating life and business, she falls under the Green Man’s spell and is drawn irrevocably into the dark mystery threatening her aunt. United by poetry, O and Emily bond, and, by summer’s end, O “joins the ranks of those crazy people who call themselves poets.” This atmospheric exploration of what it means to be a poet offers memorable corporal and incorporeal characters, a realistic intergenerational relationship and a deeply rooted mystery connecting past and present. (Fantasy. 10-14)Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor of Kirkus.