Miriam Verena Richter. Creating the National Mosaic: Multiculturalism in Canadian Children's Literature from 1950 to 1994. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011. XX + 354 pp. $109.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-420-3351-1.
Reviewed by Chris Parkes (Lakehead University)
Published on H-Canada (May, 2012)
Commissioned by Jane Nicholas (University of Waterloo/St. Jerome's)
Parkes on Richter, Creating the National Mosaic
Miriam Verena Richter’s Creating the National Mosaic: Multiculturalism in Canadian Children’s Literature from 1950 to 1994 is an engaging study of the role played by children’s literature in defining Canada as a multicultural nation. Using a two-part structure that combines an examination of the development of a national canon of children’s literature and an examination of influential children’s texts that are focused directly on the issue of multiculturalism, Richter makes a strong case for the importance of children’s literature in the formation of a national multicultural discourse, one that would eventually lead to the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (CMA).
The great value of Richter’s study is clearly to be found in the first part, in which she draws upon an enormous amount of research in the area of canon formation. She brings together a rich archive of material to demonstrate the significant role played in the postwar period by libraries, book lists, and book awards in promoting the idea of a distinctly Canadian version of children’s literature underpinned by multiculturalism. Richter is most compelling when discussing the specific influence of librarians and library collections in developing a national canon. Her discussion of the importance of the Toronto Public Library and in particular its development of the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, for example, does a fine job of highlighting the work done by librarians to not only promote a national children’s literature but to recognize multiculturalism as the future of Canada.
If the first half of the book is very nearly essential, then the second half, in which Richter discusses selected texts from the canon of multicultural children’s literature, is not. Here, her discussion focuses on seven novels that are lumped together into one long chapter concerning the “immigrant experience” in Canada. By choosing to move directly to the issue of the immigrant experience, Richter avoids texts that focus on the French Canadian and Aboriginal communities of Canada. Her rationale for excluding texts about the Aboriginal experience is particularly troubling. She chooses not to include them because Aboriginal peoples are “not immigrants” and “enjoy special status in Canadian society” (p. 160). The phrase “enjoy special status” cannot be used without irony when racism and discrimination against Aboriginal peoples is still rampant in Canadian society. She also makes the rather strange assertion that “both Indians and, even more so, Inuit are depicted in Canadian youth fiction as separate groups with little interaction with mainstream society” (p. 161). Such a statement is simply wrong about children’s literature in Canada in which Aboriginal characters have long functioned as a means of working through the nation’s understanding of itself as a wilderness space. One of the earliest classics of the postwar period, Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens (1956), is precisely about a White child and an Aboriginal child building the nation together using the knowledge of both their traditions. In many ways, Mowat’s novel can be considered a pioneering influence on multiculturalism in Canada, given that less enlightened narratives in which Aboriginal characters exist only to pass on their wilderness lore to White protagonists continued to be written well into the 1980s. Richter’s idea that “[c]ontact between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians is hardly ever to be found as narrative material” (p. 161) is not only inaccurate but would seem to be proof that Canada is, in reality, not very multicultural at all.
This is not to say that the discussion of the seven selected texts is therefore necessarily without merit. Richter’s discussion of Lyn Cook’s The Bells on Finland Street (1950) demonstrates how important the book was in arguing against assimilation, as it depicts the need for immigrants to continue in Canada the cultural practices of the “old country.” In doing so, she reminds us of the ability of a visionary author to have a profound influence on the way a nation sees itself. In other places, however, Richter’s discussion of texts suffers from a very heavy-handed form of analysis that seeks to find the language of the CMA in children’s texts. At one point she criticizes Jean Little’s books because “no hints at official multicultural policy can be detected; there are no relevant keywords whatsoever in Little’s works” (p. 235). Surely, an author of imaginative literature is not required to use the language of government legislation. This kind of analysis leads Richter to argue, in effect, that Canadian children’s authors are obligated to write about multiculturalism, that there can be no other purpose for writing a Canadian children’s text.
Richter’s book is also guilty of over-praising Canada for its multicultural ideals; it contains too many congratulatory sentences, such as “the country is globally praised as a model and receives great credit for ‘its invaluable contribution to a theory of democratic citizenship in multi-ethnic and culturally diverse societies’” (p. 49). But given that multiculturalism is currently under enormous stress, the book filled me with nostalgia for a time when it seemed multiculturalism was going to make Canada a just society and large-scale nation-building projects were still supported by governments whose goals were loftier than simply managing the economy. If only for this reason it deserves to be read.
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Chris Parkes. Review of Richter, Miriam Verena, Creating the National Mosaic: Multiculturalism in Canadian Children's Literature from 1950 to 1994.
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