Book Review

Puffin’s Canadian Children’s Classics

read some local children's fiction; mostly bad

When I pre-ordered my copy of the “new” Joan Didion book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, I noticed an offer on the website of the reputable Canadian bookseller I used for a box set of four “Canadian Children’s Classics” for only $7.50, which is basically five pounds. 

Keen to (now I’m waiting on a visa extension), culturally integrate more, this set seemed too useful – and cheap – to turn down, so I decided to dedicate the first week of February to finding my sad, bald, bored, way thru FOUR oldish books suitable for Canadian children.

Here. We. Go.

Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker

Much like the “I would have voted Obama for a third term” Get Out screenshot-of-a-popular-musical Hamilton, this novel offers a rose-tinted depiction of a pretty horrific time. All but the last few pages of this novel are set in the USA, and it’s about two slave girls escaping from a plantation in Mississippi and making their way to sainted, El Dorado-esque, Canada.

Now, a powerful novel could be made from this naiveté colliding with reality (i.e. Canada was not free of racism just because it was free of slavery), but this is a children’s book is a children’s book is a children’s book.

There is some whipping, but it isn’t described in detail. There is cruelty, of course, and racial slurs in dialogue, but all the deaths occur offstage and all the main characters escape the slave chasers, and the white helpers on the underground railroad are treated as if noble: they are trustworthy, and being of assistance from a purely humanitarian perspective. The main characters are very trusting – this is mentioned in dialogue by others, but their complete absence of vigilance never becomes a plot point.

The threat isn’t very creatively evoked.

The horror of what is being written about fails to land.

Slavery wasn’t a period of “being mean”, it was an utterly shameful and disgraceful crime against humanity, the economic and sociopolitical repercussions of which continue to exist today.

This book is from 1977, and its tone is that racism is over, this is a bad thing to look back on.

This isn’t an appropriate narrative to make into a Call of the Wild type caper.

Children should ABSOLUTELY be taught about slavery, and tho Smucker does a good job of clarifying the normalcy of the protagonists, their optimism and their attitudes are hard to swallow given the murder, torture, cruelty, malnutrition and injury that befell people on the underground railroad.

I know that what I’m basically pissed off about is the fact this book for children is a book for children, but this is my blog and I’m allowed to appear ridiculous.

More more more.

Run by Eric Walters

Eric Walters – according to the bio at the end of Run, his 2003 charity affiliated novel about the real life “Canadian hero” Terry Fox – has written eighty books.

Eighty books.

Eight. Zero.


That is too many books.

The story of Terry Fox is genuinely very sad – he was a jocky-but-sweet university athlete who had a leg amputated due to bone cancer, then – to raise money for charity and to set a “I won’t be beaten by cancer/disability” message – attempted to run coast to coast across Canada from Newfoundland to British Columbia.

Fox got massive media attention – he was young and it was 1980 so there were lots of televisions but not much television – but then, a little over halfway, he collapsed, struggling to breathe, discovered his cancer had returned to his lungs, returned home for chemo and then, sadly, died. He raised a huge amount of money for charity and the foundation set up in his name continues to do so (the joggers I often see when walking Cubby down by the lake shore are as likely to be wearing Terry Fox Foundation branded t-shirts as they are Nike, Adidas and (like in central London), New York City Marathon).

Rather than a straight-up retelling of what happened, Walters invents an incredibly immature fourteen year old who is taken by his journalist father to cover Terry’s run, close to its beginning. They get on, and Terry convinces the regularly-suspended teenager to buckle up and work hard at school. In the first chapter, Winston (that’s the boy’s name, Jesus Christ) is brought home in handcuffs by police due to being found wasted in the street. This arrest and his drinking is never mentioned again.

It’s a frustrating read, and in a two page excerpt of a column supposedly written by Winston’s father (also called Winston, Jesus Christ), Walters tells the story of Fox in an eloquent, moving and engaging way. So, he’s writing badly on purpose. Walters can evoke character when he’s pretending to be an adult writing for adults, but when he’s an adult writing for children his prose is dry, rambling and dull. Patronising, I suppose.

I don’t want to come across as knocking Terry Fox – I’m in the process of waiting for a visa extension and I don’t want any googling bureaucrats to think I’m anti-Canada – but this book about him was shit, tho knowing Walters gave all his royalties to the Terry Fox Foundation does redeem it slightly.

Two more to go. Maybe the reason why this boxset was only $7.50 is because it’s all shit.

Awake and Dreaming by Kit Pearson

Ok, this one is by far the best of the set so far, but I mean I still had some reservations.

It’s about Theo, a nine year old girl and “only child” who’s spent her life being neglected and ignored by her too-young mother, over on the West Coast in Vancouver. She meets a ghost who allows her to live out the fantasy of being part of a stable middle class family, but then she has to return to poverty and her mother. She then finds the perfect family from her dream/fantasy and they’re not quite so perfect, but maybe there’s a middle way she can find if her wastrel mother just gets a little more responsible.

It’s good magical realism, nicely moving, neatly plotted, very felt.

I enjoyed it, which is why I have much less to say about it. Like a canada-y Jacqueline Wilson.

Mama’s Going To Buy You A Mockingbird by Jean Little

This one, also, was a very beautiful novel, written by a blind writer (like Milton!) and about a twelve year old boy dealing with the death by cancer of his father.

It’s about grief and death, obviously, but it’s also about alternative family structures and the importance of friendship and connection to provide solace from the inevitable tragedies of life.

It’s from the eighties, and other than very casual inter-sibling violence and a throwaway scene where some “bad kids” are “kicking a cat in a bag” and the fact that the main character’s parents OWN TWO HOUSES even tho one of them doesn’t work and the other is a primary school teacher, and then when they sell one of the houses after the teacher dies and move into a rented flat for a bit, the children are encouraged by the landlord to call him “Grandpa” and the text implies this is sweet, rather than one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read…

Other than that, it was excellent. Emotive, real-feeling, bleakly true, emotionally mature and nuanced.

Bye bye bye is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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