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You Are Two and Babies and Toddlers of CanLit

Our favourite babies and toddlers in Canadian literature. 

Book Cover You Are Two

In their new book, You Are Two, Sara O'Leary and Karen Klassen celebrate the milestones of a child's second year—the terribleness notwithstanding.

This new book follows up the delectable You Are One, and You Are Three is forthcoming in the spring. In celebration of this latest release, we want to similarly celebrate babies and toddlers, in particular our favourite ones from Canadian literature.

This list is just a start of course. Tweet us or leave a comment with suggestions of your own. 



Book Cover Adult Onset

Maggie, from Ann-Marie MacDonald's Adult Onset: 

Never has the toddler meltdown been as perfectly captured as it is in Adult Onset via Maggie, youngest child of our protagonist, who is so furiously, terrifyingly two. Do not leave this child unattended near a pair of scissors, and if you dare to make her put on her winter books, you're only asking for trouble. 

The trick is not to mind it. She has seized the little foot once more and manages to get the Bean book onto it, but as she reaches for the other boot, Maggie kicks off the first and looks at her with frank and infuriating glee. It is a look of entitlement that makes Mary Rose see red... Maggie laughs and grabs the ladybug boot. Mary Rose grabs it back. Maggie kicks her—


Book Cover The Juliet Stories

Emmanuel, from Carrie Snyder's The Juliet Stories:

So often, fictional small children are like accessories, or lapdogs, a part of the story but more set piece than character. Which is ridiculous, as you'll know if you've ever met a toddler. In real life, the toddler is fervently engaged in the manufacturing of chaos and danger, which Carrie Snyder seems to capture so effortlessly in this collection, which was nominated for a Governor-General's Award in 2012. 

Emmanuel yanks on the beads hung across the bedroom door, and in his hands, in one smooth movement, they come apart. Their hanging patterns disintegrate and pour like tropical rain on the floor, each jewelled ball landing with a tinkle, a splash, rolling the tiles to the far corners of the room, under the apartment door, down the stairs, beyond.

It is the sound of calamity, and then of quiet...


Book Cover Good to a Fault

Pearce, from Marina Endicott's Good to a Fault:

In her blog series, "Babies in Literature," Stephany Aulenback writes of Endicott's novel, which was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2008: "There are a couple of love stories in this novel, actually, but the most important one is between Clara and the children..."

Clara's spine had grown used to the living-room chesterfield, and back in her bed she had a ragged sleep. About midnight Pearce woke, hot and cranky. She gave him a sponge bath by the kitchen sink, with only the stove light on in the dim night kitchen. Poor lamb. Was this mild fever from illness, or new teeth coming in. Or withdrawal from the Benadryl. He was good-natured about it, lying peacefully on the towel as she sluiced him with trickles of water. His legs slid open and relaxed, and he turned his melon head on his small neck to look at the dark gleaming window over the sink, and through the window, to the moon shining out there in the night.

"There is the world," Clara told him. "There is the moon."


Book Cover Just Pretending

Lucy Wingfeather's Baby in the story "Hungry" from Lisa Bird-Wilson's Just Pretending

We're big fans of Lisa Bird-Wilson's award-winning collection—check out our interview with her from a few years back. In this collection of stories about broken family ties, this particular story offers the possibility of connection. After suffering innumerable cruelties in her life, Lucy Wingfeather is offered the biggest smallest mercy as she breastfeeds her child for the first time. 

The baby's small black-capped head squirmed beside her, but he wasn't crying. He turned his head and smacked his lips, rooting. His fist found its way to his mouth for a moment before jerking out of reach again. Then Lucy Wingfeather's baby found Lucy's breast with his tiny bow mouth and he sucked on the damp fabric of her t-shirt. Lucy lifted her shirt and the baby latched on. Both their eyes widened with surprise. Lucy felt the baby's sharp tug on her breast. He started into her eyes like a hypnotist, refusing to release her. She watched him, eyes dark and serious as he rhythmically suckled, taking what he needed. Gradually, he dared to close his eyes. She longed to tell someone, but there was no one to tell. 

Afterward, Lucy held the baby to her face, where she inhaled the scent of her own milky whisper on his breath." 


Book Cover Frankie Styne

Jim/Silly in Kathy Page's Frankie Styne and the Silver Man

When Liz Meredith's baby is born, she is forced to move out of the railway cars she'd been making her home in and into a terrace house and the care of social services. The baby, who is diagnosed with developmental abnormalities, is no ordinary baby, but Liz is no ordinary mom. Their story is part of the rich tapestry of this darkly comic novel by the Giller-nominated Page, which was released in a new edition last year. 

'Silly—no point in pretending. Manners is another thing you're spared... I can see this is sending you to sleep... Nice that we share the same attitude to life.' She wrapped him tightly in a square of blanket with hospital property woven into it. Then she did something for the first time. It was over and above what she had described to Mrs. Purvis and the hospital doctor as 'the necessary' and doing it...made her feel a little strange. She bent and kissed him, properly, on top of his head. It was the new name, somehow, that made it possible.


Book Cover Rilla of Ingleside

The Soup Tureen Baby in L. M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside

There are babies aplenty throughout the Anne books, beginning with the multiple sets of twins whose care Anne is charged with in her pre-Green Gables days. The babies continue with Anne's own sprawling brood, and each of them are memorable, but this is the only one who comes delivered via soup tureen (after its mother dies while the father is away fighting in WW1), and oh, how I do love the line, "A baby by day was dreadful enough; a baby by night was unthinkable." 

Rilla was silent, looking down at the crying baby. She had never encountered any of the tragedies of life before and this one smote her to the core of her heart. The thought of the poor mother going down into the valley of the shadow alone, fretting about her baby, with no one near but this abominable old woman, hurt her terribly. If she had only come a little sooner! Yet what could she had done—what could she do now? She didn't know, but she must do something. She hated babies—but she simply could not go away and leave that poor little creature with Mrs. Conover—who was applying herself again to her black bottle and would probably be helplessly drunk before anybody came.


Book Cover Joy is So Exhausting

The baby from "Nursery," from Susan Holbrook's Joy is So Exhausting

In this weird, wonderful long poem about motherhood and breastfeeding, Holbrook gestures toward the universal but also portrays a very particular infant—right down to the veins on her head. Moving from left side to the right, through those delirious, endless hours, Holbrook shows just how a mother is born. 

Left: Trace pictograph of an elk in the fine veins of your temple. Right: If it were a Virgin Mary we'd be on the news. Left: Try to sit you up for a burp you're still latched on. Right: Milk drops leave shiny slug trails across your cheek. Left: Reading at the same time, my book on your hip, worried the officious prose style will come through in the milk and give you gas. Right: Doping for sleep. Left: Feeling like a mother didn't happen when you were born, or when I first fed you, or first used the word 'daughter.' It's happening six months later, in the dark, as a mosquito kazoos around and, without a second's hesitation, I pull up your covers, lay my bare arms on top of the blanket, whisper 'bite me.' Right: I wasn't talking to you. 


Book Cover People You'd Trust Your Life To

Daniel and Allison from "If This is Love" from Bronwen Wallace's People You'd Trust Your Life To

Okay, we're pushing it here with CanLit fetuses, but I love this story with Lee looking back on the weeks before her daughter was born, that hot summer she passed in the backyard with her son. There are lots of poignant and beautiful portrayals of mothers and children throughout this incredible collection. 

And that was it. That was all she did that summer. What she remembers of the rest of it is cool water sloshing over her belly as she sprawls in the pool drinking cold beer and eating popsicles, Daniel paddling beside her or eating an ice-cream cone on his swing under the trees. Around then, the grass turns brown, the garden wilts, the tar on the driveway melts. Lee doesn’t care. She sets up the stereo on the back porch and turns it on full blast. Planet Waves over and over again. Sometimes she hauls herself out of the pool to push Daniel on his swing in time to “Forever Young” or “You Angel You”  while, in its time too, the baby turns and swims and waits.

A very gentle time, Lee thinks now, when she turns, as she does occasionally, and sees herself there, with Daniel, suspended in that clear, golden light. Gentle, in spite of the heat. Lee likes the way she looks in her green bathing suit, the shine of it on her great round belly and breasts, her hair piled carelessly on top of her head, curling in fine blonde tendrils around her face She likes Daniel's plump, gritty knees and the precision of the tan-and-dirt line around his face, just at the edges of his sun-whitened hair. 


Book Cover A Large Harmonium

Little Max, from Sue Sorensen's A Large Harmonium

I love this novel about a mother puzzling out the mysteries of life, love, marriage, work, children's literature ("And in Goodnight Moon, where has the mother buggered of to? That intractable little bunny who won't go to sleep has been left in the care of a rather odd old lady sitting in a rocker"), and the whole wide world. Not least of which is the mystery of her three-year-old son. 

We put the finishing touches on Little Max's lunch: pudding (vanilla, never anything else on pain of death), little chunks of bread and meat in separate containers (larger sandwich-like articles are treated with disdain), a cheese stick (expensive, sometimes hated, sometimes revered by Little Max, impossible to predict which on any particular day), grapes cut precisely in half, crackers. Would it all come back again untouched, attended by an extremely pale three-year-old exhausted from refusing to eat or drink because we've had the temerity to go to work at the university and leave him with the daycare workers he adores? The child is baffling. His personality is huge, his will stronger than ours by far. 


Book Cover The Odious Child

The Odious Child from the title story in Carolyn Black's collection The Odious Child: 

The baby in Black's story "Baby Mouth" is actually one of my favourite babies in literature ever—the baby refuses to smile or laugh, and the mother is haunted by a baby in an E. M. Forster novel (see? Fictional babies are dangerous) whose limbs are suddenly "agitated by some overpowering joy" and her own baby's refusal to be so overcome. I, too, once had a baby who refused to smile at strangers in the street, and I remember that awkwardness, the urgent desperation, and I so identify with that mother.

But let us focus on the child of in the title story instead, for the sake of fascination. 

In an earlier century, people would have called the child "feral" and given some wondrous account of its origin, of how it emerged from a forest or ravine after being raised by wolves. I have read such accounts, the journals of worthy and curious doctors who found feral children and attempted to understand them through education. There is minor progress, the child eating with a spoon for instance, and learned discourses on what makes one human and the relationship between wilderness and civilization. But what can wilderness mean to me, here in the city? The view from my kitchen reveals a parkette bounded by four busy streets. 

And although there are similarities between my child and its feral ancestors—yes, the child is covered in pale brown fur, and yes, its eyes glow with a blue intensity in the dark, and yes, it groans and shrieks, rather than vocalizing anything close to speech—I have never tried to civilize or understand the child, and I have no interest in reflecting upon its origins (although, certainly, I did not give birth to it). We so rarely understand ourselves, let alone others. 


Book Cover Sweet Devilry

The baby from "Ultrasound" in Yi-Mei Tsiang's collection, Sweet Devilry

No, no, no! It turns out there really is competition for favourite CanLit fetus. This one is from Yi-Mei Tsiang's first poetry collection, which won the Gerald Lampert Award in 2012. 

First glimpse of my daughter,

a grey cloud, shape twisting

within me, a storm about to rise...


Her head turns; she stares through

my skin at our probe, at the

technician's hands, sees us 

like we see God, a shadow

a pressure, and her heart-sound


gallops through the room

like an accusation...


Book Cover Wilderness Tips

Hairball in Margaret Atwood's story of the same name from Wilderness Tips:

Not all things that our bodies create are beautiful, but they're worthy of love and admiration all the same. Atwood's story of a woman's benign tumour and its use (in the form of a truffle) as a object of revenge has fascinated me and horrified me for years. To be honest, I would like such a thing to stick on my own mantelpiece. 

The hair in it was red—long strands of it wound round and round inside, like a ball of wet wool gone berserk or like the guck you pulled out of a clogged bathroom-sink drain. There were little bones in it too, or fragments of bone; bird bones, the bones of a sparrow crushed by a car. There was a scattering of nails, toe or finger. There were five perfectly formed teeth.

"Is this abnormal?" Kat asked the doctor, while smiled. Now that he had gone in and come out again, unscathed, he was less clenched. 

"Abnormal? No," he said carefully, as if breaking the news to a mother about a freakish accident to her newborn. "Let's just say it's fairly common." Kat was a little disappointed. She would have preferred uniqueness. 

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