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Canadian, eh? : a content analysis of illustrations in Canadian children’s fiction 1799-1939 Brymer, Lois Marylin

Abstract

There is a unique Canadian-ness to be found in the illustrations of Canadian children's fiction published during the 1800s and the early-to-mid 1900s. A visual content analysis of 4,934 illustrations in a representative sample of 331 fiction titles spanning the years 1799 to 1939 from the University of British Columbia's Rare Books and Special Collections Library quantified core elements that can be said form the foundation from which today's perceived Canadian identity has emerged and evolved. At the heart of these core elements is Canada's distinct and diverse geography which was documented in 70 percent of the illustrations. When a group of Canadian authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, educators, librarians, and booksellers were asked "What's Canadian about Canadian children's literature?" they could not collectively provide a "dogmatic answer" according to Perry Nodelman (1997a, 5). Nevertheless, the respondents seemed to agree that there is a Canadian-ness in the literature that allows children to see reflections of themselves and their country and that also gives them a sense of national identity. Present views and opinions suggest that as an ever-changing concept, Canadian or Canadian-ness is too elusive, too intangible, and too complex to define. By going back to what may be the root-level of a Canadian identity, to the illustrations in the beginning fiction for children that was published when Canada was evolving as a nation, and by examining perhaps a vital and an overlooked source of the origins of Canadian-ness, this study set out to find quantifiable answers to the questions, "what is Canadian?" and "what is Canadian about Canadian children's literature?" The conclusion drawn from this analysis is that there are no dogmatic answers to these questions. However, core elements such as geography, weather, animals, birds, transportation, and experiences were identified that can be said "anchor" and give meaning to this seemingly "hard-to-pin-down" concept of Canadian. As in real life and as mirrored in the research sample's illustrations, the protagonists' pivotal connection to and ever-changing relationship with the land and its geography has shaped and continues to shape what is Canadian and what is Canadian about Canadian children's literature.

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