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5 Great Canadian Children's Books

Updated on September 18, 2012

Alligator Pie

By Dennis Lee

Illustrated by Frank Newfield

First published in 1974, Alligator Pie, is an illustrated book of children’s poetry. In 1975 it was named “Book of the Year” by the Canadian Library Association.

Of all the books I read as a child Alligator Pie has always stuck with me. To this day I can’t hear “Kamloops” without thinking, “I’ll eat my boots”. Yes the poetry is brilliant and the illustrations are colourful, memorable and engaging but I think one of the things that I love so much about Alligator pie is how intrinsically, unapologetically and naturally Canadian it is.

Much of modern Canadian children’s literature comes off as forced and unnatural. Words like “maple leaf” and allusions to ice and snow are thrown in as though those are the only things that Canada is about, and as though we need those things to separate ourselves from certain culturally-overbearing neighbours. But we don’t, Canada isn’t Canada because it’s not America or Britain, it’s not Canada because it’s cold or because we like Hockey there is so much more to our country and our culture than those things and this book embraces that culture without an eye twitch southward or across the pond.

This rhythmic, melodious book of poems reads like a great song, and is an essential part of any Canadian child’s picture library.

A Promise is a Promise

By Robert Munsch and Michael Kusugack

Illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka

A promise is a promise is the retelling of an Inuit folktale related by the Kusugack family to Munsch while he was visiting them in the Northwest Territories. The actually quite chilling book, with it’s almost creepy illustrations is about a young girl who is captured by monsters who live below the cracks in the ice and tundra and only escapes by promising to trade her own life for those of her siblings.

In this well written piece of Canadian literature the arctic comes alive with magic, suspense and song and teaches young children a valuable lesson about respecting nature and it’s great power.

An interesting fact about this book is that the illustrations were done by a woman who had never visited the arctic herself. From snowy but far from arctic Toronto she took her inspiration from pictures from Munsch’s tours through the territory. Every face in the book was lifted directly from a photograph and modeled after real people living all over the Canadian arctic.

The Paper Bag Princess

By Robert Munsch

Illustrated by Michael Martchenko

As a young girl you are bombarded with stories about princesses who can’t seem to keep themselves out of trouble and always have handsome princes showing up out of nowhere to sweep them off their feet and solve their problems. Even from a very young age I looked up to Princess Elizabeth who sets off to rescue her fiancé Prince Ronald when he is captured by a mean-tempered dragon and at the end of the book when she finds out Ronald was a bit of a jerk all along she rides off into the sunset – without him.

Runaway Row

By Lindsay Grater

Looking for a way to teach your child the value of preserving historical buildings? Or the misfortune of losing so much architectural history as cities shuffle themselves to make way for a new world?

Although the illustrations are strange and sometimes inconsistent the story of a row of houses wishing for a way out when they are threatened by a new factory is strange and endearing. When their wish comes true they race away from their former home to find a safe spot to rest and wait for their beloved occupants.

Although I must admit, after reading this as a child new condos in my neighbourhood in downtown Toronto always made me very sad.

Something from Nothing

By Pheobe Gilman

This endearing book is adapted from a Jewish folksong about a tailor who turns a ruined jacket into a vest, then a tie and so on. In this story an old tailor makes sure nothing goes to waste as he starts with his grandson’s old baby blanket until eventually all that’s left is a scrap small enough to make a button.

I swear this book is a big part of the reason I hate waste today and never seem to be able to throw anything away. It sparked my lifelong fascination with repurposing, refashioning and trashion and perhaps the best part is watching what the little family of mice below the floor boards do with the scraps the old tailor discards.


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