A harvest of children's books from Canada

Canadian children are well provided for in their selection of reading matter, since the best of children's literature from the United States and Britain is readily available to them. Unlike their contemporaries in these two countries, however, young Canadian readers do not have a flood of their own literature to choose from: Only about 150 children's books in English are published in Canada each year (as opposed to approximately 2,000 in the US). It is encouraging that this small yearly output of children's books is as good as it is.

In the past decade, English-Canadian children's literature has come of age. The pivotal year was 1974, when an illustrated volume of poetry for young children, Alligator Pie (Macmillan), appeared. Its author, Dennis Lee, was already a respected poet, critic, and publisher. In writing for children, Lee set out to compose specifically Canadian verse. His well-crafted, sometimes irreverent rhymes are full of local place-names and concerns, yet they reflect the universal joys and woes of childhood. The unprecedented success of ''Alligator Pie'' encouraged him to write four more poetry books. The most recent, Jelly Belly (Macmillan), was on the Canadian best-seller list for months and earned Lee the title ''the Father Goose of Canada.''

Lee's example began a groundswell in the publication of books for children under 8. The other dominant figure for this age group is Robert Munsch, a teacher whose many fantasy books all have their roots in ''told'' stories. Zany tales such as The Paperbag Princess, Mortimer, and David's Father (all Annick) contain many of the satisfying elements of folklore.

A third author, Sue Ann Alderson, has created an endearingly human preschooler in her Bonnie McSmithers picture books (Tree Frog). And children as young as 2 revel in Kathy Stinson's Red Is Best and Big or Little? (both Annick) , which perfectly mirror a toddler's world.

The newest star in this galaxy of books for younger readers is Zoom at Sea (Douglas & McIntyre). This witty, magical tale by Tim Wynne-Jones about a cat that goes to sea is depicted in enchanting illustrations by Ken Nutt.

Many other distinguished illustrators of children's books have emerged in the late '70s and '80s. The four best known are William Kurelek, Elizabeth Cleaver, Ann Blades, and Laszlo Gal. Kurelek's pictures appeal to all age groups; his A Prarie Boy's Winter and A Prairie Boy's Summer (both Tundra) capture magnificently the experience of growing up in the West. Cleaver uses collage and cutouts in her stunning interpretations of Indian stories retold by William Toye , such as The Mountain Goats of Temlaham (both Oxford). Ann Blades illustrates both her own and others' works. In A Salmon for Simon and Pettranella (both Douglas & McIntyre) her delicate watercolors evoke a strong sense of place. Laszlo Gal's elegant paintings give fresh interpretations to two traditional fairy tales: The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Little Mermaid (both Methuen).

The works of these authors and illustrators are amazingly well known in a country that is so widespread; young children are as aware of their own heroes and heroines as they are of Max or Peter Rabbit. Stories for older children have developed more slowly, but in this area, too, there has been a recent expansion.

The finest achievement in Canadian children's literature has always been the preservation of Indian and Innuit legends. Formerly the tendency was to ''tidy up'' these stories for a nonnative audience. Now some authors, such as Christie Harris in her Mouse Woman adventures (Atheneum), are using legend as a springboard for their own narrative talents. Other writers, especially Joan Skogan in The Princess and the Sea Bear (Metlakatla Band Council), record native material with a minimum of expurgation, trusting the tales to find their own audience.

Canada has made worthy contributions to juvenile historical fiction. Two of the best, by Barbara Smucker, (both Clarke Irwin), are about situations which provoked a move to Canada: Underground to Canada, a suspenseful adventure about runaway slave girls, and Days of Terror, about a boy caught in the turmoil of revolutionary Russia. Another writer, Joan Clark, has set her mystery-adventure - about the Oak Island treasure in Nova Scotia - in the 18th century in The Hand of Robin Squires (Clarke Irwin). Sweetgrass, by Jan Hudson (Tree Frog), unobtrusively combines historical, feminist, and native Indian themes in a moving account of a prairie Indian woman in the 1800s.

In fantasy writing few have equaled the two powerful novels by Ruth Nichols, A Walk Out of the World (Harcourt Brace) and The Marrow of the World (Atheneum). One exception is Janet Lunn, whose The Root Cellar (Scribner) is a meticulous time-travel story spanning two countries.

Because of one writer - Monica Hughes - Canada shines in the field of science fiction. Perhaps her country's most distinguished writer for children, she is also one of its most prolific, writing realistic fiction as well. Her trilogy, The Keeper of the Isis Light, The Guardian of Isis, and The Isis Pedlar (all Atheneum), although set in the future, is truly Canadian in its theme - immigrants to a new land dealing with the accompanying pressures of prejudice and culture clash.

The greatest strengths in Canadian realistic fiction lie in novels about pre-teen-agers or young adolescents coming of age. The hero of Hold Fast, by Kevin Major (Delacourt), combines attributes of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield as he comes to terms with both his parents' deaths and his Newfoundland outport roots. Brian Doyle's Up to Low (Douglas & McIntyre) evokes another region, the Ottawa Valley. This short masterpiece about a boy visiting the home of his relatives is a carefully controlled mixture of rude humor and strong emotion.

The best children's books accurately reflect their own country while transcending borders through themes that are common to all young people. Canadian children's literature has grown up enough to do both.

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