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Believing in Books: The Story of Lillian Smith

by Sydell Waxman, Patty Gallinger and Liz Milkau, illus.

For 40 years, from 1912 to 1952, Lillian H. Smith embodied librarianship in Canada. As the first children’s librarian in the British Empire and the director of children’s services at Toronto Public Library, she created a visionary philosophy of library service for children. She was responsible for the first children’s library in Canada (Boys and Girls House), children’s services in public libraries, public school libraries, bookmobile service, community libraries in settlement houses, and library service at the Hospital for Sick Children. Her 1952 book, The Unreluctant Years: A Critical Approach to Children’s Literature, is a seminal work in the field. There’s no doubt that Miss Smith (as she was called) is worthy of a biography.

Waxman’s inventive approach uses the metaphor of Smith as a gardener who planted a forest of new ideas. But readers gain little sense from this book about what kind of character Smith was. Quotes of Smith’s pepper the pages but without sources, leaving us to wonder whether they’re from her book or her letters. Those quoted aren’t identified: few children will know who the storyteller Alice Kane was, for example. Nor does Waxman provide a context for Smith’s achievements across Canada and around the globe. No mention is made of the role she played in connecting books with readers on the CBC, or her role in the American Library Association and in international library circles. No mention is made of her life after retirement in 1952 or even of her death in 1983 at the age of 96. The sense of chronology in the book is sometimes vague, which left me flipping to the timeline at the back to understand what took place when.

The author received the Frances E. Russell Award from IBBY Canada for original research for this book, but it’s worth pointing out that the award was not given for the finished book. Although its intent is worthy, Believing in Books doesn’t match the standard set by recent biographies of Tom Longboat and Rapid Ray.