Desperately seeking … books about ourselves

To claim that Atlantic Canadian books are accessible to Atlantic Canadian students is akin to suggesting that a home in Atlantic Canada has a wonderful ocean view. It might be true that, if you stand on a chair in that home and peer through a high window, you can see a patch of blue water

School children reading iStock_000017255139Medium

To claim that Atlantic Canadian books are accessible to Atlantic Canadian students is akin to suggesting that a home in Atlantic Canada has a wonderful ocean view. It might be true that, if you stand on a chair in that home and peer through a high window, you can see a patch of blue water. Similarly, if students know where to look and whom to ask, they can find some Atlantic books in Atlantic schools.

My own research suggests that students tend to read books that are presented to them by adults, and don’t seek titles that aren’t made
familiar to them by teachers, librarians, parents, or movie trailers.

Thus, the chances of a student
finding that metaphorical patch of blue varies across the crazy-quilt policies and practices of four provinces, their various school districts and the individual schools.

Patchwork of practices

Although New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador share the 1996 Foundation for the Atlantic Canada English Language Arts Curriculum (a document, produced by the education departments of the four provinces, that aims to broaden the resources and experiences of students as they develop their English language skills), education is a provincial jurisdiction. Therefore, each province applies the foundation’s policies separately and differently.

As well as ensuring literacy standards among the region’s schoolchildren, the foundation aims to broaden students’ understanding of cultural diversity and heritage. Yet only New Brunswick has a clear policy to place New Brunswick books in the province’s schools.

That policy states, in part, that “books help students develop a sense of identity and belonging, not only by introducing them to local authors but also by enabling them to recognize themselves in the pages of books whose landscapes, characters, expressions, and surnames portray a reality that resembles their own.” The policy also mentions recognition of francophone literature, local talent, a New Brunswick cultural identity, and exposing students to career options in the book industry.

New Brunswick’s online list of 249 titles approved for kids from kindergarten to Grade 3 includes nine books from Atlantic Canada. There are seven Atlantic books on a list of 220 titles for Grades 3 to 6. Atlantic books are not identified in New Brunswick lists, but their origins can determined by researching titles and authors.

Alternatively, the Nova Scotia Book Bureau, which obtains and distributes books that have been approved for use in the province’s schools, designates Atlantic Canadian books with the letter code AC. The department has an unwritten policy to buy Nova Scotia books first, and Atlantic second.  Of approximately 4,000 approved titles in Nova Scotia, about 100 are identified as Atlantic Canadian.

Prince Edward Island doesn’t have an online list of approved books, and education department officials did not provide one when asked to do so. Newfoundland and Labrador does not identify Atlantic Canadian books, but a review of the department’s online lists of classroom texts for younger students reveals that five of almost 200 titles originated in this region, while more than 100 were American. The remainder came from other Canadian sources, including Canadian suppliers of American and British titles. A list of approved children’s literature for students from kindergarten to Grade 3 held fewer than 10 Atlantic books, almost 30 Canadian, and almost 50 American.

Lists from these provinces contain books dating back 40 years or more—possibly considered 
modern classics—that have not been re-evaluated in the light of 21st century readers.

No consistent definition

Publishers’ sales statistics shed little light on the subject. One Atlantic publisher roughly estimates that 150 titles were sold to schools over the past three years, which may indicate the circumstances of the whole industry and education system—or not.

The first problem with the numbers is that there appears to be no consistent regional definition for an Atlantic book. Can the British science fiction The Chrysalids, set in Labrador, be termed an Atlantic book? How about the French version of the American classic Tom Sawyer, which may have been translated or illustrated in the Atlantic Provinces?

As well, inconsistent record-keeping and repetition of titles in multiple lists for each province skew the numbers. Furthermore, school staff members responsible for ordering books may not necessarily select Atlantic titles, and book donations to schools from outside the education system also twist statistics.

In addition to cost, other factors affecting title selection include efforts to provide books for varying ages, to attract both boys and girls, to address cultural differences or topical concerns like bullying or family issues and to participate in programs like the Hackmatack Children’s Choice Book Awards (a program for young readers in Atlantic Canada in which children from Grades 4 to 6 read from a selection of Canadian books and vote for the winners). Educators and librarians talk about struggling to fill holes in their schools’  book collections, while department officials cite budget cuts as the reason for less careful oversight and distribution of fewer titles.  Efforts to put Atlantic products first may be trumped by competitive prices from suppliers.

Recognizing cultural value

In the end, it’s most likely that Atlantic books will become more accessible in our schools when purchasers recognize the economic and cultural value, and when readers demand them. Both factors rely on awareness, by exposing children and educators to Atlantic books, and by presenting government funding agencies with hard economic facts. ■


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1 Comment

  • I suspect inaccurate categorization is a significant factor in the apparent absence of Atlantic books in school book catalogues. I did a quick search in the NS School Book Bureau’s database and found that there were four books listed by New Brunswick author K.V. Johansen, all filed under “CP – Can. Pub.”, despite the fact that the author is an Atlantic Canadian, and two of the books are published in Atlantic Canada.

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