Yates’ kidlit cream of the crop
Susan Yates rarely leaves her house without a pile of children's picture books in her backpack or car, in case a child needs a story. We asked her for a list of her top picks.
July 10th, 2014
Retired Gabriola Island librarian Susan Yates spotlights thirty Canadian picture books from her collection of more than 300 of them. do to him.
A few years ago, a little boy in Grade 2 said to me, “I love it when you read to us because things slow down.” As the years pass, that small comment has come to carry great meaning for me. I know how important it is for the world to be less frenetic for those little ones – maybe for all of us.
Every year I meet up with a few teenagers, some adults now too, who tell me how much they loved the stories I read to them in school, at the day care, and at various community events. They often remember a particular story, and relate how that story is still important to them. For me, all the picture books on my shelves have special connections to children – sometimes only one child, sometimes a whole class.
I was once asked if I ever read to children via an e-book. My answer was no, I don’t, for several reasons. One, I can’t afford most electronic gizmos. Two, even the newest e-readers (and I know them well, being a retired librarian) does not feel, look or smell as good as a ‘real’ book to me. Three, when I read out loud to one or more children, it is important for them to see and hear when and how I turn the pages.
Most importantly, and this happens all the time in my favourite read-to class, children need to see what the cover of the book looks like when fully open and facing them. They often ask me to turn a page back to compare illustrations, or show them the end papers to see if they match the story. It may be crucial here to note that I buy hardcover picture books whenever possible, so that my audience and I can enjoy a generous view of the entire book, including the author’s and illustrator’s name.
I have more than 500 picture books, but my favourite and most-used ones are on the Canadian picture book shelves. This collection has books from the late 1970s to the present. I’ve been gathering them for 40 years, since I taught school in northern B.C. The books represent the geography and history of Canada in its finest form. If I’d been able to read these books when I was a child, I would have been a lot more interested in the history of my own country. I would have gained a more accurate picture of it too.
The following bibliography includes stories by some of Canada’s best authors and illustrators, and they cover all the territory: from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from the Arctic to the southern Prairie. They include stories of Canada’s first peoples who knew the land before the Europeans crossed the ocean to settle the country from Newfoundland to the western prairie, and later the west coast.
I’ve read these stories aloud many times to very different audiences, and I never tire of their quintessential ‘Canadianness’. As Margaret Atwood famously observed, Canada is all about the struggle to survive – the terrain, the weather, the wildlife (including the ravaging mosquitoes and black flies). These stories are about all those things with the added attraction of excellent illustrations and fine narratives.
Margaret Atwood also said that we are hard-wired for stories and that is a good thing. There isn’t a better way to learn history and there is more human truth in fiction than in any non-fiction account of the same story.
This bibliography is my version of ‘Canada Reads’ for children – but great for adults too.
Susan Yates’ favorite Canadian Kidlit books (ages 5 and up)
Blades, Ann BOY OF TACHE; MARY OF MILE 18; Rural northern B.C. communities in the early 1970s. Ann Blades also illustrated A Salmon For Simon, by Betty Waterton
Bouchard, David THAT’S HOCKEY (rural Quebec ) Charming and funny illus. by Dean Griffiths.
Butler, Geoff THE KILLICK: A Newfoundland Story A suspenseful Outport story of bravery and sacrifice.
Carrier, Roch; illus. by Sheldon Cohen LE CHANDAIL DE HOCKEY/THE HOCKEY SWEATER and LA CHASSE-GALERIE/THE FLYING CANOE. The Hockey Sweater is an endearing and enduring Canadian classic of mid-1900s rural Quebec; The Flying Canoe is a wonderful retelling of a French Canadian folk tale.
Hemon, Louis; paintings by Rajka Kupesic MARIA CHAPDELAINE A picture book adaptation of the classic novel about life in French Canada in the early 1900s.
Hutchins, Hazel TESS A classic prairie newcomer story of hardship; ONE DUCK An Alberta farmer races the weather to harvest his crop. Both books superbly illustrated by Ruth Ohi.
Jam, Teddy THE FISHING SUMMER, illus. by Ange Zhang. A glorious east coast summer and a boy’s fishing adventure; THE YEAR OF FIRE, illus. by Ian Wallace. The story of a great fire in the Ontario woods, handed down from grandfather to granddaughter.
Kurelek, William A PRAIRIE BOY’S SUMMER; A PRAIRIE BOY’S WINTER Canada’s best-known painter depicts biographical scenes from the Canadian prairies in the 1930s.
Kusugak, Michael NORTHERN LIGHTS: THE SOCCER TRAILS (Inuit myth and tradition) and THE LITTLEST SLED DOG (a cairn terrier’s adventures in Rankin Inlet) Both books beautifully illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka
Lawson, Julie; illus. by Paul Mombourquette EMMA AND THE SILK TRAIN The 1927 “million dollar wreck” of a silk train in southern B.C.
Loyie, Larry and Constance Brissenden; illus. by Heather Holmlund AS LONG AS THE RIVERS FLOW A Cree family in Alberta during the residential school years.
McFarlane, Sheryl; illus. by Ron Lightburn WAITING FOR THE WHALES A poignant story connecting grandfather, daughter and granddaughter on an island in the Salish Sea
Olsen, Sylvia; illus by Joan Larson YETSA’S SWEATER Coast Salish tradition and a lovely family story on Vancouver Island.
Pendziwol, Jean; illus by Jirina Marton MARJA’S SKIS Finnish immigrants in northern Ontario and a little girl’s brave adventure.
Reynolds, Marilyn; BELLE’S JOURNEY (Canadian prairies in the 1920s); THE NEW LAND: A First Year on the Prairie (emigration across the Atlantic and eastern Canada to the prairies) Both illus. by Stephen McCallum; THE NAME OF THE CHILD (rural Ontario during the 1918 flu epidemic) illus. by Don Kilby.
Spray, Carole; illus. by Kim La Fave THE MARE’S EGG A classic and funny pioneer story of European emigration to a new life of farming in Ontario, with an interesting afterword by Margaret Atwood.
Trottier, Maxine FLAGS A poignant story about Japanese Canadians in the 1940s with gorgeous illustrations by Paul Morin.
Valgardson, William THOR (Icelandic Canadians in northern Manitoba) illus. By Ange Zhang; SARAH AND THE PEOPLE OF SAND RIVER (Icelandic settlers and Cree people in northern Manitoba) illus. by Ian Wallace.
Vickers, Roy Henry and Robert Budd RAVEN BRINGS THE LIGHT A stunning version of an ancient northwest B.C. coast legend.
Wallace, Ian DUNCAN’S WAY A young boy finds a way to save his father’s pride and his family’s home, after the collapse of the east coast cod fishery.
Walsh, Alice HEROES OF ISLE AUX MORTS The famous rescue of passengers from a ship wrecked off the coast of Newfoundland in 1832) Illus. by Geoff Butler, who wrote The Killick.
Waterton, Betty; Illus. by Ann Blades A SALMON FOR SIMON The very satisfying adventure of a little boy on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Yee, Paul GHOST TRAIN An excellent story-portrait of the Chinese men who worked on the western Canadian railway. Haunting illustrations by Harvey Chan
Judith Saltman’s recent critical BCBookLook overview of children’s books published by Douglas & McIntyre can be found in the archives section of this site, under the FRONT PAGE section.