Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Canadian children's fantasy - what? where? why? whither?

Johansen, K.V. Beyond Window Dressing? Canadian children's fantasy at the Millennium. Sackville, NB:Sybertooth Inc. 2007.

Reviewer: David Beagley

The British have been doing it so well for years; in the USA it is in plentiful supply and they try so many styles; even the Australians are exploring new and unique ways of doing it. So, K.V. Johansen asks, why are Canadians not writing imaginative children’s fantasy like these others?

Beyond Window Dressing? Canadian children’s fantasy at the millennium is her survey of current Canadian children’s fantasy writing and wears that question mark deservedly. She pulls no punches in her analysis of titles published over the last few decades, and she makes cogent demands of authors and publishers as we move into a new century.

It could be argued that the use of “millennium” as a time marker has become rather clichéd since 2000. That particular year did not occasion any sudden or seismic shift in authors’ creative impulses or publishers’ selection criteria, any more than the one before or the one after. But any campaign for change needs a starting point, and 2000 is a nice round number if a border is to be set. So, Johansen compares Canadian fantasy titles published in the 5 years since 2000 with those from the decades before and, though she finds some improvement, she is not overly impressed with either group.

She notes that “… the question of whether the fantasy now being published in Canada is good fantasy, capable of withstanding comparison to the best of Britain or the United States, has not been paid much attention”. The ‘Window-dressing’ of her title is what she sees as the earlier emphasis on “clumsy allegory, moral instruction and that favourite Canadian genre, ‘time travel to learn history” or, essentially, a veneer to decorate largely non-fantasy stories or situations.

She asks why fantasy, as an imaginative exploration of possibilities and potentials, has not been seen as a strength of Canadian children’s literature, and she clinically dissects dozens of text examples accordingly. Her structure of chapters on the range of sub-genres - dual world, speculative, historical, animal, and so on – is clear and informative and enables effective comparisons between more and less successful exemplary texts. Few, she finds have an identifiable ‘Canadian-ness’ that sets them apart, especially in combination with literary value. As a result, a sociological question is raised that is never really answered - “Well, why not Canadian?”

To be fair, Johansen does not claim to address that. Hers is a survey of the field. But she does highlight the successful role of cultural and historical identity in British literature – Sue Cooper and Alan Garner are referred to frequently for their use of traditional motifs, characters and settings from their British isles – and she notes Patricia Wrightson’s reworking of Australian Aboriginal mythology as peculiar to that continent and its past and present.

In expressing her disappointment that Canada does not seem have nurtured (yet!) a particularly local version of the British JK Rowling, Phillip Pullman or Brian Jacques, or the US’s Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley or Ursula le Guin, or even the Australians Patricia Wrightson, Garth Nix or Anna Ciddor, she establishes an expectation there is an answer waiting out there somewhere.

Perhaps the question should be ’is there something about Canada that discourages fantasy writing?’ Johansen finds some good individual examples in Kenneth Oppel’s bats and airships, Alison Baird’s Willomere, O.R. Melling and Charles de Lint, among others, but she does not go on to consider in what sense these authors’ Canadian citizenship, birth, identity, or location might affect their writing. She does define what is NOT Canadian – for instance, O.R. Melling’s Chronicles of Faerie series is shown (as are several other texts) as basically “immigrant”; that is, the origin of the stories lies in (usually) British traditions or characters simply transplanted into a Canadian setting. What might make a story uniquely Canadian, however, is not really considered.

The Introduction gets close. Egoff and Saltman are used to establish a chronology of Canadian writers and to set up the framework of sub-genres that structures the main text. This list, through the start of each chapter, provides a succinct introduction to those forms, theorised largely around Tolkien’s Primary World/Secondary World definition. Early Canadian examples of each sub-genre are noted and often expanded in the chapters.

This survey format is the strength of this text. Johansen’s opinions of titles and authors are strong and honestly expressed. Some are praised and others are not.

But lingering always is the nagging question of “Well? Why not Canadian? What is it about them?” Others consider it. Recently, in this journal alone for instance, with Canadian picture books Black and Jobe (2005) have looked at sense of place and Grant (2007) has examined English and French streams. George (2007) has given a postcolonial reading of Residential School experience, while on a related theme Penn (2007) looked at how Australian landscape can characterize adventure stories. Elements like these define a nation and distinguish its culture and expression from others.

Certainly, fantasy does not demand a cultural or historical authenticity in the way that realist fiction does and Johansen recognizes this. But Cooper’s Dark is Rising, Wrightson’s Wirrun, and O’Brien’s Mrs Frisby all demonstrate direct connection to extant social features in their author’s national identity. If the question is asked in terms of such national identity, if the adjective “Canadian” is used to define, then the answer must also be developed in those terms.

The alternative is to examine the fantasy itself. While Johansen uses her list of categories to structure her examination of titles, she does not explore the potential for development within those sub-genres or forms. Fantasy writing runs such a danger of stereotypes and clichés. A new twist, a different take, is essential to avoid the sameness that clutters too many bookstores (another medievalist teen hero rising from poor origins to battle an ultimate evil with help from a white-haired wizard, anyone?).

For instance, in Australia over the last few years, Anna Ciddor’s Viking Magic and Carole Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper series have considered the perceptions of magic in authentic history, Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series uses the days of the week to plot the teen hero’s journey, and Kate Constable takes the “chant” of “enchantment” to have her magic sung in her Tremaris trilogy. Different voices (male/female, high/low) sing different magics. An interesting editing/publishing twist comes with Paul Collins and Michael Pryor’s Quentaris series where a host of different authors have created the 26 (so far) stories of the one city, each having to maintain the events and characters of earlier writers. None of these fantasy variants is peculiarly Australian, yet their creators obviously feel confident to try. Is it publishing and commissioning, is it popular reception and acclaim, is it something in the Australian water? Johansen identifies what is and is not being written in Canada, but does not take that next step of considering why.

Canada can offer its literature so much that is unique: landscape, aboriginal culture, colonial and post-colonial interactions, counterpoint to near neighbours, intertextual references. In this book, Johansen describes the current state of play in Canadian children’s fantasy writing and makes clear statements of what she identifies as strength and weakness. She has the basis of a good textbook in her structuring around definitions of the sub-genres of fantasy, with excellent support from a detailed bibliography and index. She asks why Canadians have not written in the form as the comparable literary scenes of Britain, the USA and Australia have done. But that answer is left hanging.

Beyond Window Dressing: Canadian children’s fantasy at the millenium focuses well on what is. The next step must be into what might, or could, or should.


Works cited:.

Black, Marilynne, and Jobe, Ronald. "Are Children Gaining a Sense of Place from Canadian Historical Picture Books?" The Looking Glass 9.3 (2005).

George, Kallie. "The Art Tells the Tale of Two Canadian Cultures." The Looking Glass 11.2 (2007).

Grant, Brianne. "Opening the Cache of Canadian Secrets: The Residential School Experience in Books for Children." The Looking Glass 11.2 (2007).

Penn, Sandie. "The Influence of the Bush on European-Australian Identity in Australian Children's Literature." The Looking Glass 11.3 (2007)


David Beagley

Volume 12, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January/February, 2008

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