By Beverley Brenna, Professor of Curriculum Studies, College of Education, University of Saskatchewan
Contemporary Canadian picture books are sweeping readers off their feet with compelling images as well as — or instead of — words.
Julie Flett’s Birdsong, for example, recently earned the 2020 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for the most distinguished book of the year. Before winning, the book was shortlisted alongside two other picture books and two middle-grade novels for this prestigious prize. Since 2014, many of the winners of this award have been picture books.
Combinations of images and words have come into their own as spectacular products of arts and culture. As such, they have tremendous potential in the wide field of literacy as families, schools and communities embrace shared reading opportunities.
Increased variety of stories
My research team and I recently explored 500 picture books created by authors or illustrators living in Canada and published since 2017 by Canadian publishers. I’ve also reviewed an array of modern titles that demonstrate the evolution of what Eliza Dresang, a professor of library science, called “radical change” in children’s literature.
Dresang identifies that in our digital age, we’re seeing an increased variety of forms and formats in children’s literature, and wider content boundaries. Children’s literature is currently engaging more serious subject matter and including perspectives that have been historically marginalized, such as stories about Indigenous people’s experiences of residential schools.
Through literary and artistic merit, many picture books attract wider age ranges and engage older adults than ever before. Some titles can even support struggling teen readers.
Today, picture books appear in a variety of genres, fiction and non-fiction, and generally unfold in 24 or 32 pages. Many of these books rely greatly on images to create and deepen meaning, and image quality is therefore critical. Readers now have access to multi-media projects with tremendous artistic merit, as well as stunning projects without any words at all, such as Sidewalk Flowers, illustrated by Sydney Smith and authored by JonArno Lawson. This wordless picture book won the 2015 Governor General’s Award in the category for children’s illustrated books.
Choosing books for children
Children need access to stories that authentically represent their lived lives. Educators and parents who are selecting picture books for children should examine the illustrations as well as the words, seeking titles that are representative of the world we live in. Audiences need diverse characters who are portrayed respectfully and accurately in terms of culture, language, religion, social class, ability, sexual orientation and gender.
The increasing availability of dual-language books offers a wonderful opportunity to celebrate multiple languages, with translations either embedded as single words or full text variations.
The following books are extraordinary in both text and illustration, grouped here as a snapshot of contemporary excellence that represents diverse communities, identity themes and artistic media. Include them in home and school collections or enjoy them from your local public library.
The Land Beyond the Wall, by Veronika Martenova Charles.
Nimbus Publishing, 2017.
This allegory, presented in evocative narrative and watercolour, follows a young girl who moves to a country where she is free to be an artist. The author’s afterword discusses her childhood behind the Iron Curtain, arriving in Canada via Pier 21 in Halifax. For ages 5_12+.
My Beautiful Birds, by Suzanne Del Rizzo.
Pajama Press, 2017.
Sami has escaped war-torn Syria and lives in a refugee camp. As he befriends four new birds, he begins to adjust to his new life. Poetic language pairs well here with stunning illustrations created through Plasticine, polymer clay and acrylics. For ages 6_10+.
My Cat Looks Like My Dad, by Thao Lam.
This unique story, presented with retro-style collage, lists the various ways the narrator’s dad resembles their cat. A surprising twist at the end: the narrator is actually a bird. The message is that family is what you make it. For ages 3_8+.
Africville, written Shauntay Grant and illustrated by Eva Campbell.
Groundwood Books, 2018.
A young girl visits the former site of Africville and imagines this historic Black Nova Scotian community while thinking about family stories. Textured oil-and-pastel-on-canvas illustrations extend the lyrical text. An author’s note provides more information about Africville’s development from an early settlement, and how the community was razed by the city of Halifax in the 1960s. For ages 4_8+.
Seamus’s Short Story, written by Heather Hartt-Sussman and illustrated by Milan Pavlovi.
House of Anansi Press, 2017.
When Seamus wears his mother’s high-heeled shoes, he can reach everything! But there are definitely times to be tall and times to be small. This is a nuanced story about innovation, self-acceptance and love, presented with a bright palette of colour. For ages 4_8.
The Dog Who Wanted to Fly, written by Kathy Stinson and illustrated by Brandon James Scott.
Annick Press, 2019.
This warm-hearted story, enriched by Brandon Smith’s highly animated illustrations, encourages readers to follow their dreams. Zora is a well-developed and compelling canine character that audiences will cherish. For ages 3_8.
The Girl and the Wolf, written by Katherena Vermette and illustrated by Julie Flett.
Theytus Books Ltd., 2019.
A girl gathers berries with her mother when she becomes lost in the woods. A wolf helps her use her wits and she finds her family. Later, she leaves tobacco in a red cloth as a gift of thanks. Julie Flett’s textured mixed-media images extend Katherena Vermette’s powerful text about finding courage and wisdom inside ourselves. The author’s note says this story was “inspired by traditional stories, yes, but in no way taken from one.” For ages 4_9+.
The Outlaw by Nancy Vo.
House of Anansi Press, 2018.
A young boy speaks on behalf of an outlaw returning to make amends in this story about redemption. The images use ink, watercolour and newsprint transfer, with newspaper clippings and fabric patterns from the late 19th century. For ages 5_9+.