I wouldn’t live there if you paid me

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In 2015, the population of the Greater Toronto Area cracked 6 million people. That is more people than the whole of British Columbia and accounts for 29% of the total population of Canada. According to Statistics Canada, only 20% of Canadians live in rural areas. (I can’t wait to hear the update statistics coming out of our first real census since 2011.)

I am one of the 80% of Canadians who grew up and currently live in an urban area, which is why I am always bothered by children’s books that paint rural life as an idyllic paradise and city life as nasty, brutish and short.

Yes, yes, pros and cons for both choices exist, blah, blah, blah, but in the world of children’s literature, I come across proportionally more rural-based stories or read negative portrayals of cities and city life more often. Which brings me to the classic Aesop Fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.

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In the original tale, the city mouse scoffs at the country mouse’s simple meal and offers an invitation to the city. Upon his arrival in town, the country mouse tastes rich food but is almost killed by dogs while eating and decides he was better off with his simple, safe life in the country and returns home. Most modern adaptations take a to-each-his-own approach, but an undercurrent of rural superiority still remains.

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The music is too loud in the city

 

In the beautifully illustrated version by Helen Ward, the only hint of difficulty to rural living is “the aching hunger of a long, cold winter” and the cons of the city outweigh the pros. The story in Mousetropolis by R. Gregory Christie is more balanced but the illustrations don’t always support the city’s advantages. Jan Brett’s take is the most even of the ones that I’ve read, and the illustrations, with detailed, supporting stories in the margins of the page, complement the main narrative well without making a judgement on the mice’s choices.

I doubt my kids notice these distinctions overtly, my five year old prefers one of the more traditional tellings because he finds it funnier, but as city dwellers we have a surprisingly difficult time finding books reflecting our kids’ experiences. My three year old loves Toronto ABC by Paul Covello because he visits the places mentioned in the book. Some of the great ones we’ve come across in recent years include Symphony City by Amy Martin and Sidewalk Flowers by JonAron Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith. As the kids get older, we make a bigger effort to find overtly pro-urban stories, which portray cities not as places to overcome but places full of wonder, experience, and growth – just like the city we call home.

 

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All I learned in my son’s junior kindergarten

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My oldest son is reaching the end of his first year of school. We knew sending him to junior kindergarten would be a big change. He had never been in daycare and only interacted with kids at a community playtime or when visiting his cousins. I admit, we were a little nervous about what he would bring home, but for the most part, our fears have been unfounded. He has forged friendships, completed inquiries on topics that engaged his mind, and learned more about the world around him. He loves his teachers and regularly tells us how much he loves school. Kindergarten success!

The main downside of his new experiences has been the increasing gender division throughout the year. In September, his most common afterschool playmate was a girl from his class. For Halloween, he dressed as Julie Andrews. But by January, he no longer played with the girls in his class, and we began to hear about girl colours and boy colours, stories for girls and stories for boys.

Whenever the topic comes up, we try to have an age-appropriate conversation and encourage him to think about why he believes some things are for girls and some things are for boys. Trying to argue about every gender stereotype is a losing battle, so giving him the skills to think critically is our real aim. Watching him grow and figure things out for himself is a joy.

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But this school year just reminded me to watch my gender expectations as well. As the mother of two boys, I lamented for a while about not having a girl to share with all the things I loved growing up, especially books and stories.

Since the beginning of May, my son and I have read Charlotte’s Web twice. I wasn’t sure he would be interested. I don’t remember my older brothers reading this book, though I loved it, and the main human protagonist is an 8-year-old girl. I promised him that we would read the first chapter and if he wasn’t interested we could set it aside. We read four chapters the first night, and the moment we finished the book, he asked if we could read it again. And, in the wonderful coincidences of life, a spider built a web outside his bedroom window, so he named it Charlotte, after his favourite character.

With the success of reading Charlotte’s Web, I’m beginning to get excited about sharing all the other books I loved as a child, without worrying about if it is a girl book or a boy book. I can’t wait to introduce him to Anne of Green Gables or Karana from The Island of the Blue Dolphins.

A good story is just a good story.

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#tbt book nerd style

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Some books are like warm hugs. You always feel good when you read them no matter how many times you’ve read the same words. When I was younger, that book was Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke.

Oke is a prolific and beloved author of Christian children’s books. Published in 1979, Love Comes Softly is Oke’s first novel and the first book in a series of eight following the same family. From that one book, Oke launched her career, which now includes over 70 books and several awards.

Set in the 1800s, Love Comes Softly tells the story of Marty and Clark Davis. The two meet under tragic circumstances after Marty’s husband dies in a horse-riding accident. Alone on the frontier, Marty, newly pregnant, has nowhere to turn until Clark, father of a one-year-old daughter, who also recently lost his wife, proposes a marriage of convenience. He even promises that, come spring, if Marty is unhappy, he will pay for her return east if only she brings his daughter with her so she can have a mama.

Christian Children's Books, Janette Oke

Feels like a warm hug

And so begins a year of challenges, frustrations, growth, and, of course, unexpected love.

Love for a little girl, for a new baby, for an unplanned couple and for God.

I grew up in a Christian household, and the rhythms of prayer, reading the Bible, and Sunday rest found in Clark’s home, which are completely foreign to Marty, echoed the atmosphere of my own home.

Over the course of the book, Marty realizes a love for Clark and a love for God. These great loves are the heart of the whole Love Comes Softly series.

Reading Love Comes Softly is like climbing back into the chair in my parents’ living room, when I was small enough to be enveloped in its cushions, feeling secure and sure of the world and my place in it. Perhaps it is time for a reread.

Do you have a book that feels like a warm hug?

#tbt book nerd style

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Last week in celebration of International Children’s Book Day, I discussed The Seventh Princess, which is the first book I remember buying for myself, check that post out here. I enjoyed my book nostalgia so much that I’ve decided to make #tbt book nerd style a regular feature on re: read pages.

This week as part of National Poetry Month, I want to bring to your attention the first collection of poems that really made an impact on me. I had read individual poems that made an immediate impact, perhaps by the usual suspects – Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est – but the collection Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke lingered with me in a way I hadn’t previously experienced.

The collection, which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2001, addresses the real story of Clarke’s cousins, two black men who were convicted of murder and hanged in New Brunswick in 1949. Just the idea that they were hanged so recently, which seems archaic, stuck with me, but the poems also use the experience of George and Rufus Hamilton to a reflect on the effects of systemic racism and cyclical poverty – issues that still need thoughtful contemplation.

Yesterday, as I reread these poems, one line stood out from the first page and I will leave you with those words:

My black face must preface murder for you.