Authors of children's books are no different in terms of producing creative and substantive material from those writers and authors who pen stories for the adult market: both genres cry out for the portrayal of something meaningful, memorable, instructional, possibly provocative - and last but certainly not least, something entertaining enough to be devoured like a juicy mesquite-smoked salmon steak fresh off an outdoor grill on a Canadian spring afternoon.
And no matter what the storyline is, no matter the names and identities of the characters, no matter the tone, setting, ironies and conflicts, all writers have a moral and/or political agenda at work when they sit down to the keyboard to work. The values of the writer are interwoven into that writer's story like the planks of a political party during its convention. Careful, objective readers - with experience in analyzing literature and knowledge of the subtleties of tone and style - will almost always be able to discern what the "big picture" message is in any well-crafted tale.
Within even the most pedestrian of children's stories - whether it is about sports or history or war - there are morals and values to be found. And at the end of the day, when the book has been read and placed back on the library shelf, waiting for the next reader to enjoy it, unless those above-mentioned morals and values have been poignantly and powerfully presented, the literary work's legacy will be more dusty than worthy.
Questions and Answers from The Hockey Sweater
What we can learn about children and childhood from the story?
Initially, adults the world over should be easily able to discern that a child's world should be respected and protected, but at the end of the cay, a child's world is in actuality a sidebar story to a grown-up's world. That is to say, the world most certainly belongs to adults, not to children, and therefore, little people must create their own world within the larger world, and it emerges - from an objective view - as a sidebar story to the adult's world.
Many, if not most, adults believe that obedient children are the ideal children, and adults also believe that daydreams are just a phase children are going through, not to be taken too seriously. And yet, to children, the daydream is what brings their world to life; not as a fantasy, but as an excursion into a world only children can understand and thrive in.
Meanwhile, alluding to the Carrier story, the story opens with the note that winters (in Canada) were "long, long seasons," and though school and church were part of those seasons, "...our real life was on the skating rink."
Indeed, what adults view as an educational opportunity (school), children see as "punishment" (77), and a "quiet place where we could prepare for our next hockey game." And what adults see as the spiritual life (church), children see as a place to "forget school," to find "the tranquility of God," and to daydream about "the next hockey game."
Is it true that "parents always want to punish children"? Of course not, but from the perspective of a child living in Canada, where hockey was invented and where hockey is more popular than football in the United States, anything keeping a child from practicing hockey, or playing in a hockey game, is surely construed as "punishment."
An example: time for prayer at church for a Canadian child is a time not designed to ask God to help the sick or give strength to those in need; no, prayer is "ask God to help us play as well as Maurice Richard" (77).
How important are Heroes in the story?
Maurice Richard served as a great deal more to the child in this book than merely a hockey hero, though he certainly was that: "...We all wore the famous number 9" (78) - and "We laced our skates like Maurice Richard, we taped our sticks like Maurice Richard...we all combed our hair like Maurice Richard." Indeed, Richard was God-like, a towering, compelling figure, not unlike Babe Ruth was for boys growing up in New York in the 1920s and 30s. Richard and Ruth were, in a very real sense, quite a bit larger than the cliche, "larger than life." They were life, because as noted in the introduction to this paper, life for kids was lived through the power of daydreams.
Richard provided for Canadian kids what Ruth provided for New York kids: something to hang a dream on, something to idolize that was harmless, something to fantasize about to help get through the dreary doldrums of school, church, and other forms of "punishment."
And as for Richard's immense power over kids, he transcended mere hockey, or sports, and his legacy entered into the indigenous world; Richard represented two things beyond being a mere sporting hero: one, he was the sum and substance of a Canadian kid's national identity; and two, he was the shining symbol of native loyalty - in this case, loyalty to Montreal, through the golden reputation of the Montreal Canadians.
How important was the Eaton Catalogue in the story?
The catalogue was the key to a world of dreams coming true: a fresh new sweater, arriving in the mail, was magical for a kid growing up in hockey-crazy, icy-cold Canada in the winter. Meantime, the only thing not good about the Eaton catalogue was that it was "written in English," and mom didn't understand English. Otherwise, because mom didn't want people to think her family poor - and because she was "proud," she would rather mail off for clothing for her children than go to the general store.
The catalogue turned out to be the best and worst of all worlds, when Monsieur Eaton sent the sweater for the Toronto Maple Leafs, something akin to the daughter of Senator John Kerry ordering a sweatshirt with a donkey and "Democrats" stitched on the front, and instead of that, receiving a sweatshirt with an elephant and "Republicans" stitched on the front.
Never had anyone in my village ever worn the Toronto sweater, never had we even seen a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater." And teary-eyed, he pledged that "I'll never wear that uniform." The mother clearly did not understand this child's world of turning daydreams and hero-driven loyalties into realities. Her advice was perfectly appropriate for an adult to understand, but for a child, it rang hollow: "If you make up your mind about things before you try, my boy, you won't go very far in this life."
The catalogue also provided the author with an opportunity to illustrate - through literary passages - the antipathy between French-speaking Canadians and English-speaking Canadians. This schism is not new at all, and it won't go away easily. But when mom wrote in French as a symbolic gesture against the intrusion of English-speaking companies in Canada, the reader understands that it was in a way a protest, albeit, a quiet and dignified one.
One wonders, too, if when Monsieur Eaton sent the wrong sweater, if he was conducting his own little protest against French-speaking people.
What is the extent to which the text aims at instruction or delight, or both?
This story is very instructive, not so much for children, but for adults. And here is the rationale behind that assertion: for all their best intentions, adults just don't get it when a child's world is being threatened by the dark cloud of dream-dashing reality. Mom orders the sweater, but the wrong one comes in the mail. Every other kid in this cold Canadian village has sweaters reflecting the Canadians - so, how can the protagonist possibly attempt to buck that tradition?
I'll never wear it," he says, to which mother replies: "Why not? This sweater fits you...like a glove."
Hello mom, wake up and smell the cappuccino: the fit of the sweater is incidental and entirely trivial in this context. Forcing a child in a community of crazed Montreal Canadians kid fans to wear the logo of the hated Maple Leafs (albeit, the maple leaf is the national symbol of Canada), is wholly disrespectful of that child's place in his society of friends. And as was stated in the introduction to this paper, a child's life is a sidebar to the adult world - but it is a sidebar, legitimate in its entirety, every bit as important in the big picture of growing up in this world as the headline at the top of the newspaper is.
The lesson here for adults is, peer group "pressure" is not just some neighbor kids trying to talk your kid into having his first cigarette, or daring your kid to walk out on thin ice at the risk of falling into frigid pond water.
Peer group pressure also means not putting a kid into a situation where he or she will be humiliated by his or…