This month, Canadian literature month, we thought we’d interview the chair of our Master’s in Children’s Literature program and favourite lecturer, Professor Judith Saltman (known to us as Judi). Judi specializes in Canadian children’s literature and is the founder the Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books (English) website/archive which is a wonderful resource for both critical works, illustrated works from around the world and Canadian children’s literature. She is also a fabulous lecturer and can tell a good story.
This interview asks some basic questions about Children’s Literature in Canada and helps to introduce the topic, enjoy!
1. From your vast experience reading and working with Canadian children’s literature, is there a unifying trait in Canadian children’s literature? For instance, even if the readers were not aware that the author was Canadian, would you say that there is something particular (and/or specific) about the book (and all its parts) that made the book Canadian? An unconscious and perhaps unintentional manner of writing or constructing characters that reveals the Canadian hiding behind the different stories and characters?
Different critics and writers have many answers to this question – landscape, multiculturalism, diversity, standing on the side of events, history, regionalism, type of wry humour. I personally feel that it is ineffable, but some strong elements of landscape and regionalism are elements of the writing from a group of Canadian authors for both children and adults. I also think there isn’t one voice in Canada that reflects the Canadian spirit – but a multitude of voices. Canadian writers can and do write about whatever speaks to them, whether stories of immigration to Canada, life in other countries, fantasy, or growing up on the Canadian prairies. All are Canadian books if the creator is Canadian.
2. Do you feel like there should be a unified Canadian identity within the field of literature? Do you think it could maybe lend itself to some issues of stereotyping/representation, given how vastly different the population is in every province?
There should never be any “shoulds” in writing for children, adults, or from any country. Shoulds are a type of censorship restriction. Everyone writes from a different centre of being. The imagination doesn’t have national boundaries.
3. Can you recommend to us books written by Canadian First Nations authors, in the tradition of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (who is American), that narrate childhoods from a uniquely Canadian perspective?
First Nations novelists in Canada for children and teens I admire include: Jeanette Armstrong, Diane Silvey, Thomas King, Lee Maracle, Michael Yahgylanaas, Larry Loyie, Richard Van Camp, Thomson Highway, Michael Kusugak. Theytus Books and Pemmican Press publish really strong Aboriginal writers in Canada.
4. From your point of view, what is the value of regional literature for children and adults alike? Should it be a priority in publishing houses, libraries and schools?
Regional literature – if children can see themselves (locally, regionally, linguistically, ethnoculturally) in books, they are validated and feel part of the world of story. Any story of place and space is also a window for others who aren’t from that place/ space. I think regionalism or the local is the specific that makes it possible for writers to reach the universal. Many writers for adults and children have said this. There are publishing houses committed to this, and for Canadian children and teens to recognize their stories and places in published narratives, but the publishers’ need to survive also balances that commitment. Many smaller regional houses are the only conduits for regional voices. Librarians are always conscious of this fact and make efforts to include “local” and regional representation in their collections.
5. Some Canadian authors have noted that large, non-Canadian publishing houses ask them to remove mention of cities or streets (for example) that are specifically Canadian. What are your thoughts on this?
This is highly problematic and has been happening since the early 20th century – it is common for American publishers to change, remove and edit other national references in their editions in the US and every publisher needs to publish in the US to financially survive. When Canadian publishers request deletion of place names, linguistic Canadianisms, Canadian spelling, or cultural markers in order to sell the book into the US, it is a kind of cultural effacing and censorship – it undercuts national identity. Some publishers give the writers a choice – to publish with the Canadian place names and lose sales in the US market; others don’t feel this way and believe the US market has enough flexibility to accept “foreign”-sounding elements in the text. This is true of Australian and British originated titles published in the US as well.