Authors reanimate Canlit for teachers

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January 21, 2014

Reading Canada: Teaching Canadian Fiction in Secondary Schools

By Wendy Donawa and Leah C. Fowler

Oxford University Press

275 pp. $69.95

Reviewed by Susan Braley.

In Reading Canada: Teaching Canadian Fiction in Secondary Schools, Wendy Donawa and Leah C. Fowler rightfully name teachers as curators of Canada’s narrative culture. Teachers collect, preserve and interpret the literary artifacts of Canada and help students to recognize and understand these national treasures. Legendary books like Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind are among these artifacts.

But Donawa and Fowler also name a crisis: innumerable national treasures are missing from the “permanent collection” of contemporary Canadian fiction. Reading Canada, a dynamic guide, re-imagines this collection for Canadian teachers, pre-service teachers, and readers at large.

Reading Canada is spacious and inviting:  in each chapter, key thematic and conceptual principles, such as social realism or visual literacy, come alive in the discussion of new Canadian literature; following the discussion, a pedagogical essay explores how to “call students to responses, reflection and research” using this literature. The case studies at the end of each chapter – for instance,  “What Fear Makes Us Do: Beyond Fear and Bullying” and “Classroom Canada Reads” – are highly engaging.

Fowler and Donawa promote literary-quality, contemporary Canadian fiction for secondary-school students. They point out that teachers, under pressure to manage heterogeneous classes and achieve more standardized outcomes, often choose readings already enshrined in the curriculum. The readings they select are likely to be classics like To Kill a Mocking Bird or Lord of the Flies. Although venerable in their own right, these books do not depict “the sociopolitical, geophysical and imaginative landscape” in which today’s Canadian students live.

To represent this landscape, Donawa and Fowler launch an astonishing exhibition of current Canadian authors, all of them worthy of sharing space with the Atwoods and Mitchells in the existing collection. Many of these books enlarge the definition of “Canadian” and introduce crucial issues like belonging and otherness. For example, Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel The Book of Negroes offers a powerful story of a black woman, who, after years of enslavement, struggles as a “free” Black Loyalist in Canada. This book and others situate the history and politics of race, too frequently seen as only American concerns, in Canada.

Young adult readers themselves often inhabit complex worlds where they deal with problems like poverty and isolation.  Reading Canada provides a trove of recent Canadian books wherein these readers may find their lives mirrored. Carrie Mac’s The Beckoners depicts the cycle of the abused becoming abusers; Sylvia Olsen’s White Girl follows Josie to a reserve, where she is the only white girl.

Such books also include models for problem-solving; for instance, bi-cultural Ashley in Jamie Bastedo’s On Thin Ice builds strength by connecting with Nanurluk, the Great Spirit Bear of her father’s culture.  Such stories provide students with literary examples of building empathy and hope, “one narrative experience at a time.”

Fowler and Donawa observe that the genre of speculative fiction addresses problem-solving on a large scale, its narratives “challenging the boundaries of the possible.”  The chapter on this genre exemplifies how judiciously Donawa and Fowler contextualize, in every chapter, the newest members of the literary “permanent collection” they envisage. In this case, they outline how myth has nourished speculative fiction, and how hybridity and intertextuality teach students to see the elaborate  “matrices” of thought in literature.

Reading Canada’s expansive matrices give the book energy and dimension: readers can compare new books with books already deemed canonical; contemplate digital forms of learning (for example, creating a book report in the form of a Youtube video); explore the “synchronous space between image and word” in graphic novels; and promote crossover texts and “cross-curricular resonance” in the classroom.

With its deep appreciation of narrative text, Reading Canada transcends the confines of “textbook.” Even so, Donawa and Fowler describe their guide as provisional, a work in progress to be amplified by future teacher-curators in Canada.  Their book offers a vision of the permanent collection, not as unitary and official, but as open-ended and personal, to be shaped and reshaped by the “multiple discourses” and readers of English.

Susan Braley is a Victoria writer and former college professor.





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