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November/December 2003
Vol. 35, no. 6
ISSN 1492-4676

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The Fun of Reading

Trevor Clayton, Communications

Between June 26 and 29, 2003, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) hosted the International Forum on Canadian Childrenís Literature to coincide with the National Library of Canadaís 50th anniversary.

Spearheaded by National Librarian and popular author Roch Carrier (The Hockey Sweater), the historic and bilingual forum brought together from near and far hundreds of authors, illustrators, educators, academics, publishers, politicians, administrators, book enthusiasts and a multitude of media personnel to listen, speak, learn and report on childrenís literacy issues and Canadian kidís books. Countries represented include Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the United States. Conference events were held at the Ottawa Congress Centre, the main building of LAC and the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Naturally, there was excitement and optimism in such an ambitious undertaking: the culmination of a breathless two-year preparation effort by Library staff, and one that gathered some of the elite from the literary, political and business worlds in Canada and beyond. Award-winning authors and illustrators, including Roch Carrier, Dominique Demers, Daniel Handler, Marie-Louise Gay (who also created the forum poster), Michel Noël, Raymond Plante, C.J. Taylor, Cora Taylor, John Ralston Saul and Tim Wynne-Jones, could be seen and heard at various assemblies where there also appeared Senators Landon Pearson and Mitchell Sharp, and business magnates Gail Asper (president of the CanWest Foundation) and former chairman and CEO of TD Bank Financial Group, Charles Baillie. These last two might seem to be less obvious participants, unless one is familiar with CanWestís Raise-a-Reader literacy program and TD Bank Financial Groupís annual gift of a book to every Grade-one student in Canada and the TD National Summer Reading Club, a program of LAC.

Some creative brainstorming resulted in the creation of the Forum Youth Advisory Committee, a group of young people who interviewed several of the special guests (Martha Brooks and Roger Paré, among them) and strengthened the role of kids at the forum, ensuring that it did not remain the exclusive domain of professionals.

Other activities for youngsters were in abundance at various locations across the National Capital Region. Tours by steam train, museum exhibitions, readings, workshops, film screenings, a master art class with plasticine artist Barbara Reid and the first demonstration of the Broadband Book Club (an Internet system that allows students to discuss literature with their counterparts across the nation using streamlined video) provided endless educational recreation at an event that seemed to hail a boundless future for Canadian literature. Even hockey found a platform to have its Canadian history discussed in a dynamic presentation by prolific Quebec author Raymond Plante.

Conference participants spoke on issues affecting children of all ages, from newborns to those in their late teens. A series of early-childhood and promotional reading workshops brought to attention many programs that share the simple philosophy of encouraging a child to read at an early age and instilling a lifelong love of reading. Among these are the Toupítilitou program, which uses games and discovery to familiarize children with language and stimulate their imaginations, and the Parent-Child Mother Goose Program, which develops family literacy by encouraging oral language play and storytelling in households.

In her video, forum participant Dr. Renata Junqueira de Souza, of Brazilís São Paulo State University, stated that Brazilís adoption of the Mother Goose Program has demonstrated the importance of reading and quality time among families in that countryís poorer communities.

For children a few years older, the United Statesí Battle of the Books and the North American Young Readerís Choice Awards are strategic reading programs designed to challenge a studentís comprehension and give young readers a chance to vote for their favourite book from a pre-selected list. There are several award-winning Canadian authors writing for this pre- to post-adolescence age group, addressing teen alienation and anger (Martha Brooks, Lesley Choyce), racial sensitivity (Rachna Gilmore, Élyse Poudrier), adolescent poetry (12 poetry books edited by Sylvie Massicotte from the publisher La courte échelle) and the much-appreciated and much-needed genre of historical fiction (Julie Lawson, Eric Walters).

The common element in each of the presentations and workshops was a passion for literacy and storytelling. This same passion could be found in the speeches of National Librarian Roch Carrier, who talked about Canadaís woefully under-funded public school libraries and his tours among their near-empty shelves, and John Ralston Saulís condemnation of the current state of Canadaís public schools. Senator Landon Pearson, Chair of the Forum Steering Committee, pointed out the irresponsibility of library cutbacks in a nation as prosperous as Canada.

The creative ideas and programs presented by the forumís participants may serve to increase literacy rates among children and heighten awareness of the richness of Canadaís literature for kids. The methods vary, but each enables children to experience the fun of reading.