Featured Images

  • CLC 0401 cover.jpg

    Fire, snow and water

    Fire, snow and water
  • CLC0437recto_1.jpg

    Betty in Canada

    Betty in Canada
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    Tales the Totems Tell

    Tales the Totems Tell
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    The Young fur-traders

    The Young fur-traders

Scholarly Resource: Children's Literature Collection at York University Libraries

 

Introduction to the Collection 

Cheryl Cowdy

“A study of Canadian children’s books, therefore, can throw some light on the nation itself…. They show what Canada and Canadians are like, what values we respect, how we look at ourselves today and at our past”

(Sheila Egoff, The Republic of Childhood 1967).

 

Fifteen years before Confederation united the British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia into one Dominion of Canada in 1867, Catharine Parr Traill articulated her vision of a racially, ethnically, and culturally harmonious colony in her Robinsonade, Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of The Rice Lake Plains (1852). Addressed to “the children of the settlers on the Rice Lake Plains,” the novel narrates the survival of three children lost in the wilderness for two years with only the family dog for protection: fourteen-year old Hector Maxwell, the “industrious” son of Scottish settlers; his twelve-year old sister, Catharine, already in possession of a “thoughtful and well-regulated mind,” and their fourteen-year old French neighbour and cousin, the “reckless” Louis. During their adventure, the children encounter a Mohawk girl, whose knowledge of the land and its resources helps them to survive the dangers of the Canadian wilderness. In exchange for her assistance, the children undertake the civilization and domestication of the Iroquoian girl, asserting their colonial and linguistic privilege by naming her simply and symbolically “Indiana.”  By the novel’s end, the children are returned safely to their pioneer homestead, where they encourage their families to adopt Indiana, “to whom they all owed so much.” The final sentences of the novel project the child settler-reader into an idyllic future of civilized domesticity: the racial and ethnic harmony of the new colony is secured by the union of settler and Indigene, French and English. Hector and Indiana, Catharine and Louis are joined together in a double wedding, “and often by their fireside would delight their children by recounting the history of their wanderings on the Rice Lake Plains.”[i]

Canadian Crusoes encapsulates key tropes that dominate English-language settler children’s literature from pre-Confederation British North America to early twentieth-century Canada and its function in the colonizing project. Many of the books in this exhibit both challenge and reinforce such tropes as: the tension between wilderness and civilized domesticity; the conflation of the wilderness landscape with the figure of the Indigene; the enculturation of boys into the masculine project of nation-building and colonization, with its gendered coding of traits such as strength, valour, industriousness and vigor; and the confinement of female children in spaces of settled domesticity (and the surprising escape of the odd resourceful girl into the wilderness adventures typically reserved for her brothers). As Elizabeth Galway argues, “What remains apparent throughout much of the literature from Confederation onwards is the sense that the Canadian child, male or female, holds the key to ensuring the nation’s future, and that both boys and girls must learn the roles they can play in this undertaking.”[ii]

Books in the Children’s Literature Collection highlight the repetition of these tropes as the master narratives – or “hegemonic commonplaces,” to borrow a term used by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman – reinforced by British, Canadian and American authors in the stories they tell young readers about Canada. That these hegemonic commonplaces are also wrapped up in the core myth of childhood as a time of innocence and experience is evident even in some of the scholarship on Canadian children’s literature: “The true image of Canada is a composite of savagery and sweetness—like literature, like childhood.”[iii] Such hegemonic commonplaces of a possible and impossible Canada are contested and reinforced by many of the books featured in this exhibit of Canadian settler children’s literature, and that are included in the Children’s Literature Collection of the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections.


[i] Traill, Catharine Parr, 232.

[ii] Galway, 9.

[iii] Waterson, 11.

 

 

 

Exhibit Sections

Credits