When the bookseller handed me a copy of Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman, I was disappointed. It was thick, and it had a moose on the over. Not that I have anything against weighty books, or Canada’s antlered icon, but it seemed cliché. A quick flip through the pages confirmed my worst fears: very few pictures. How could this be? It’s a book about illustration and it’s mostly text? O Canada.

Now that I’ve read the book, I am no longer disappointed. In fact, I am elated. Picturing Canada is an entirely engrossing history of the illustrated children’s book in Canada from the 19th to the 21st century. To put it in book terms, from the publication of Northern Regions: or, A Relation of Uncle Richard’s Voyages for the Discovery of a North-West Passage, and an Account of the Overland Journies of Other Enterprizing Travellers (1825) to Eh? to Zed: A Canadian Abecedarium (2001). Our love of rambling titles has remained steadfast for over 200 years.

As a former bookseller working in the children’s section of an independent bookstore for more than 12 years, I was familiar with many of the titles discussed in the book. However, I was completely fascinated by the accounts of how these books came into being, and indeed, the origins of the publishers themselves, a story rarely told in this country and one which mirrors the history of Canada. There is a particularly delicious discussion of Love You Forever, the polarizing 17 million copy bestseller by Robert Munsch. At the bookstore, requests for this title were always accompanied by a whispered confession that the book, ‘made me cry’, and I confess, it made me emotional too, but not for the same reasons. I have a lot of respect for Mr Munsch, but this book creeps me out, and the illustrations are gobsmackingly hideous. In Picturing Canada, the authors do a magnificent job of laying out the divergent opinions surrounding Love You Forever both domestically and internationally. There are many reasons to purchase a copy of Picturing Canada, but the deconstruction of the Love You Forever phenomenon is worth your loonies all on its own.

Of those other reasons to take this delightful book home, top of the list is Edwards and Saltman’s scholarly and insightful glimpse into the invisible world of Canadian book publishing. Many unique challenges face authors, illustrators and publishers in Canada, including the concerns of aboriginal and francophone populations, the relevance of Canadian cultural identity, the plight of the independent bookseller in Canada, changing consumer demands, and most pressingly, whether or not to switch chesterfield to sofa for American audiences (I say no.) The authors deftly wade through these issues, and many others, with few pictures but plenty of well-researched observations.

A handy chronology of children’s print history is provided at the beginning of the book, as well as an extensive notes section with additional information about the topics under discussion. Oh, and that moose on the cover? It’s from the 1908 book, Uncle Jim’s Canadian Nursery Rhymes: For Family and Kindergarten Use. Aside from being yet another example of our national love of lengthy titles, the illustrator of the book, C.W. Jefferys is the first person to put a moose (and a beaver) on the cover of a Canadian book, inadvertently making the second (and third) biggest contribution to the visual lexicon of Canadian identity. The first, of course, is William Shatner.

Gail Edwards is the chair of the Department of History at Douglas College and Judith Saltman is an associate professor in the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia.

Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman, published by the University of Toronto Press, 2010  ISBN: 978-0802085405

(If you want a copy of Love You Forever, you are on your own.)