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Reviewed by:
  • Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children's Illustrated Books and Publishing
  • Carole Gerson
Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children's Illustrated Books and Publishing. Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Pp. 381, $39.95

Since 1974, when the extraordinary success of Dennis Lee's book of children's verse, Alligator Pie, inaugurated a golden era of Canadian children's books, it has been easy to take for granted the proliferation of beautifully illustrated volumes created by Canadian writers and artists that Canadian children and their parents have enjoyed for four decades. However, this success has been hard-won and precariously maintained, as demonstrated in Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman's superbly researched and fully documented volume, Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children's Illustrated Books and Publishing. As the result of technological demands and market limitations, full-colour illustrated children's books are both the most expensive products issued by publishers and the most difficult to market internationally and in translation.

This study focuses largely on picture books as a means through which to recount the complex evolution of Canada's world-class publications for young readers — a history that documents the dedicated network of librarians, educators, writers, artists, booksellers, publishers, editors, public leaders (Gérard Pelletier is quoted on the importance of a national literature in cultural development [70]), and other individuals who have laboured to create and nurture the infrastructure of institutions, professional organizations, granting agencies, review magazines, scholarly periodicals, prizes, public events, and conferences that have inspired and validated the production of innovative children's books. To tell the multiple and complex stories of these volumes and their advocates, Edwards and Saltman ably intertwine many narrative threads as they proceed chronologically, from the first few Canadian children's books in the early nineteenth century to the vast array available at the beginning of the twentieth-first, interspersing discussions of specific illustrations with accounts of Canada's larger history of books and libraries. [End Page 380]

One of the all-time success stories in Canadian publishing is Robert Munsch's I'll Love You Forever (1986), illustrated by Sheila McGaw, which had sold 17 million copies by 2001 (124) and still appears on weekly lists of Canadian best-sellers. Completely produced in Canada (unlike Anne of Green Gables [1908], which owed its early popularity to the American publishing industry), this picture book's prominence is the outcome of a story that began in the early twentieth century, with the commitment of a handful of librarians to quality books for children. Their mandate was not nationalist — indeed, notions of good literature for children often conflicted with the goals of cultural nationalists — but their effect was to highlight the importance of early reading, a banner taken up by authors, publishers, and booksellers in the 1920s. With a few notable exceptions, most of the English-Canadian publishing aimed at children was shaped by the production of textbooks until the 1960s and early 1970s, when schools shifted their reading curriculum from obligatory textbooks to selected trade books and stocked their libraries as well as their classrooms. This change created a huge new demand for good books for young children and fortuitously coincided with the prosperity, idealism, and nationalism of the 1960s-1980s. Children's editing developed as a specialization alongside technological advances in colouring and binding that improved the production values of Canadian-made books. Through more than 130 interviews, Edwards and Saltman have captured the stories of these heady years, when many small publishers arose to produce children's books shaped by nationalist, feminist, and other special perspectives, including the production of books for Aboriginal children. While much of the story belongs to the rise of small press publishing that characterized this period, one of the heroes of this book is editor William Toye, who championed beautiful Canadian-made books for children during his many decades at Oxford University Press. Crisis erupted when the Canadian children's literature boom of the 1980s tottered during the uncertain 1990s, an era when a continuing decline in the demographic proportion of children coincided with economic woes and global restructuring. Children's publishing, like Canadian...


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pp. 380-382
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